A colleague of mine asked if I might do a post on plagiarism. For the record, I do requests (try the veal and be sure to tip your waitress; or is it the other way around?) I will resist the temptation to stampede off into rhetorical excesses about “special circles of hell,” but I am offended by plagiarism to the core of my being. Plagiarism is the cardinal sin of scholarship only to the extent that cardinal sins are warm and fuzzy things that you laugh about at a party. OK, some rhetorical excess …
Plagiarism is nominally the stealing of words and concepts, and then presenting these as your own original work at the time of presentation. This definition is not the one you’ll necessarily find in the dictionary, because those definitions tend to emphasize the stealing of other people’s words, while I mean to insist that there is also such a thing as self plagiarism. (Also, dictionary definitions and Wikipedia entries do not answer questions so much as they provide a useful heuristic for asking better questions.) Most persons who deal with and condemn plagiarism do so as a charge against the plagiarizers for not doing the work they claim to have done. I will go much further than this charge, however, and argue that the plagiarizer has not simply stolen materials, but has positively wounded the person stolen from.
A comparison here might be with identity theft, because the thief is not only stealing my credit rating and bank accounts, but is effectively stealing me, in the form of my digital, or even public, persona. In a somewhat analogous fashion, the plagiarizer neither starts nor stops with mere physical or material factors to which my name is externally attached. Plagiarizers steal concepts and ideas that came from my innermost self, things that emerge from and are representative of that self, claiming those concepts and ideas for their own, as though the person who is the genuine source of these ideas never existed in the first place. So in a sense, a thief robs me but the plagiarizer negates me.
Matters are not rendered more innocuous when the negated “other” is actually my-self. I will turn to the question of “self-plagiarizing” in a moment. But first, some words are necessary to properly situate the above.
One might say that, surely this sort of “existential extravagance” in my language above is over the top? But such a defensive pushback is itself only a sign of the problem: the denial that there is a problem. The denial is there precisely because the people who might otherwise agree that plagiarism is “bad” (wink, wink) don’t want to address how genuinely obscene it really is. And sure, as negations of self go, plagiarism is not a patch on, say, institutionalized racism. But it is a kind of disregard made more vicious because it is so casual in its disregard. (“It isn’t like I was stealing someone’s watch!” “No, because in order to steal the person’s watch, you’d have to confront them as a person in the first place!”) The casual disdain for the wrongness of plagiarism is no small part of what makes plagiarism so wrong. Being a decent human being is a matter of cultivating habits of morality, a notion that has been argued from Aristotle to John Dewey. And while we should resist trivializing matters with a slippery slope fallacy, still we should ask ourselves: if we never bother to cultivate the discipline to avoid the easy sins, from whence will that discipline magically appear when we are faced with genuinely difficult choices? Thus, the fact that it is so much easier to commit plagiarism today scarcely mitigates the wrongness of the act, any more than the fact that it is easier to rob a store in the middle of a riot hardly lessens the fact of the robbery.
As someone who has taught in both the physical and the virtual college classroom, I must confess that one of the more astonishing things about plagiarism these days is not how easy it is to commit, but how easy it is to detect. Since plagiarism is generally driven by laziness and dishonesty, it seldom occurs to the perpetrators to assign to their professors a measure of intelligence or integrity equal to, much less greater than, their own. It is not just that the word usage and sentence construction will suddenly change in the plagiarized text; sometimes the font, and even the font color, will change (because, clearly Professor Herstein is much too obtuse to notice such things … )
For the plagiarizer, the act of plagiarism is itself a complete subversion of the educational process, which is supposed to do more than provide students with clever opportunities to copy and paste, but to actually enliven and deepen their own thought processes. Cheating one’s way past an assignment might be clever – though, as noted in the previous paragraph, it almost never is – but cleverly avoiding work is not the sort of thing that leads to genuine growth. (Again, the cultivation of habit.)
So what are we to make of self-plagiarizing? The above comments about the subversion of growth are our key. One of Kant’s more cogent points in his ethical writings (by this scholar’s not very detailed readings) was that we must treat all rational agents as ends in themselves, and not merely as tools serving some other purpose. This means that it is every bit as inexcusable to degrade yourself as it is to degrade another. (Yet again, the cultivation of habit.) So, to plagiarize one’s self is to reduce one’s own self to a (putative) useful tool, advancing a purpose other than creating a better self. The issue is NOT whose hand is using the tool, but whether it is a person being reduced to an instrument.
Plagiarism is not found exclusively in the classroom. The former President of Southern Illinois University, Glenn Poshard, was dogged by accusations of it. Dr. King has occasionally been accused of plagiarism in his dissertation. (But in King’s case, it must be understood that he was writing his dissertation from a stack of several hundred 3X5 cards while acting as Minister for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the lead-up to the Montgomery bus boycott. So in the absence of a research library immediately to hand, his advisers over 1200 miles away, and dangerously pressing matters to boot, some latitude can be given for errors of citation.) But even these academically oriented examples scarcely cover the worst offenses.
For example, Jim Wright, a well-known blogger and extremely accomplished wood artisan, discovered that, for the second time, a “progressive radio talk show host” basically stole an entire Facebook post of Wright’s and read it verbatim on air, “attributing” it to someone named “Tom.” (The details are in the previous link.) Now, Wright’s FB posts are opened up as “public,” so it is certainly the case that they are intended to be available – for reading – by anyone. However, it is a rather special kind of despicable, that a person – a professional radio personality, who uncompromisingly claims all of his own materials (so far as they really are his own) as copyrighted – would sweep up some many hundreds of words of text, and read those words on air verbatim – without attribution, much less permission – and then make self-righteous claims about his “own” intellectual property.
The examples in the two previous paragraphs indicate that matters exist on a continuum that ranges from poor/sloppy citation to outright theft. I myself try to be as careful as I’m able, but I don’t always have sources directly at my fingertips. For example, in my endnote here, I knew I was relaying a story I could not honestly claim as my own, but circumstances precluded giving an exact quote and citation. There is a story that is my own, that I have told many times, and which experience suggests is even mildly amusing. It now appears that one of the times I have told that story is going to be published (along with about 5500+ additional words of mine). I will continue to tell that story (because it is a pretty good story) but in the future, that telling will come with a footnote citing that publication. That is because every time I stop myself from telling a lie, I cultivate a better habit of telling the truth. Every time I reinforce the habit of NOT degrading myself, I reinforce the habit of not degrading others.
Sloppiness, distraction, and laziness, all conspire against us, and words and ideas with which we’ve become casual sleeping partners can easily slip into our discourse and pretend to be that moment’s original thought. But full sentences, entire paragraphs, hundreds of words? These might seem “easy,” but they are only “easy” once we cease holding ourselves to any standards at all.
Words matter, and I will not steal them.