A New Plague of Plagiarism

In an age where so much information and so many texts are freely available and free of cost – not to mention movies, songs and video clips – it is not surprising that plagiarism is thriving. Authorship and ownership have come to mean less and less.

Students are challenging what meaning may remain in the concept. As The New York Times noted last week: “many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.” Worse, “the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes ‘serious cheating’ is declining — to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.” There is just so much out there for the taking on the web that it seems to matter less and less. (See, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age.”)

As we move beyond the age of “possessive individualism,” moreover, we have a more sophisticated appreciation of how hard it is to claim pure ownership of any text. Scholars now see how virtually all texts are built up by allusions to other texts if not outright borrowings from the ideas and words of others.

The Times cited anthropologist, Susan D. Blum, who conducted ethnographic research among 234 Notre Dame undergraduates. “Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs.”

The article went on to say: “the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.”

Both traditions are also hard to reconcile with what neurobiology is teaching us about how memory is built up in the mind. Because new perceptions and ideas are layered on top of familiar old categories, we are hard put to distinguish what came first – or what belonged to whom. As a result, the ownership of words – and hence the stealing of them – is turning out to be more complicated than we once thought.

Still plagiarism is a practical problem, requiring us to distinguish between outright theft, in which the reader is being intentionally misled, and the kind of nuanced blending that adds richness and allusive depth to a text, not to mention the daily mash-ups we rely upon to communicate with others. Arguably, as well, the student who passes off someone else’s words as his own is also cheating himself.

Perhaps a more useful concept is personal or authentic thought. That is, the words and phrases may have complex derivations, the ownership of which cannot be definitively determined, but the author of any given text must have to think about what he or she is trying to say. The author must engage the ideas and struggle to find the words in order to make them his own.

That is, he may not own them, but he has to take possession of them if he is to be considered the author of the text.