Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On Plagiarism

I read in an article today that "Peter Levin, a former lecturer at the London School of Economics, has produced a guide to avoiding plagiarism," in which "he says the system of learning promoted in western universities - with its reliance on learning from other people's writing and lectures - actually forces students and academics to plagiarise."

Here's my question: how else are people supposed to learn if not from other people's writings and lectures? Ideas and words, I'm sorry to have to say, do not float around in the ether; they come from what people say, and people like to write things down so that their utterances endure and can be passed on. The claim that learning from lectures and texts practically "forces" one to plagiarize sounds like something one would hear from a student caught in the academically dishonest act of plagiarism.

From my experience, the best thing to do to discourage plagiarism is to be specific about what is expected that the student will do in his or her paper. In this way you can "force" students to write something that is more than a reproduction of what has already been written down by someone else.

6 comments:

archduke f. f. said...

While I decided against reading the article, I'm going to take a wild guess at what Levin is getting at. Students are encouraged to use sources, to cite articles, and to soak up as much about a particular subject as possible. In doing so, the students often put forth ideas that are remarkably similar to those in the articles that they read. Instead of looking at a primary source and performing exegesis on that, students are instead told to look at secondary sources in order to find out how to approach the primary source.

I don't know about anybody else on here, but during graduate school I was always worried that I was just parroting some secondary source I had read. I read approximately 30 articles and 4 or 5 books for my thesis, in addition to reading my primary source 3 times. That's a ratio of more than 10 to 1 of secondary vs. primary sources. While I might have had a lot of original ideas about the material, I'm sure that I accidentally plagiarized ideas of others while writing it. It's a fact of forcing students to be explicators not only of the text, but also of commentators on the text.

Der Staubsauger said...

From my experience, the best thing to do to discourage plagiarism is to be specific about what is expected that the student will do in his or her paper. In this way you can "force" students to write something that is more than a reproduction of what has already been written down by someone else.

archduke f. f. said...

Maybe it's different in other disciplines, but a paper isn't considered upperclassman material or graduate material in English if it doesn't cite other sources. Even if the paper topic is quite specific, the writer is still expected to research and use that research in the paper. Of course, if other disciplines are different, then the crux of my argument is disintegrated.

Ilya said...

Plagiarism is not about similarity of ideas, but about similarity of words. For example, you can write a paper or masters thesis that does not contain any original ideas, but still be considered an original piece of work. What you can't do is put forth other people's formulations of ideas and arguments as your own, without giving them credit.

That notion often confuses people who carry around the idea that researching is somehow cheating because you are learning what other people said about the thing your are interested in. Nothing could be further from the truth. All learning is research, even when you are dealing with so-called "primary" texts. Whatever ideas you put forward will naturally come from your research. What you cannot do is lift entire passages from another text and paste it into your own without proper attribution. To be sure, things get tricky when dealing with close paraphrasing. But a vast majority of plagiarism in college involves ransacking parts of other published material and literally copying and pasting it into a Word document.

archduke f. f. said...

You're taking a very simplistic view of plagiarism, Ilya. Similarity of ideas is mentioned in the dictionary definition, though it uses the word "thoughts." Plagiarism is most definitely concerned with how you comes up with what you are going to say: if you take another author's ideas and do not add something significant to them, then you are guilty of plagiarism.

Ilya said...

I still want to insist on the distinction between being merely unoriginal, and being a plagiarist. Most assignments in undergraduate philosophy and political science classes do not ask students to produce original work in the sense of new ideas that have not been thought and articulated before. Instead, they prompt students to produce their OWN work, based on their own thinking, using what teachers like to call their "own words," which translates: do not plagiarize.