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Teaching about plagiarism (or not)

Tyll Zybura, 22. Juni 2020

As teachers, we need to frame plagiarism as a technical problem, not a moral one. Learning how to avoid plagiarism is an integral part of learning what academic writing is about. In fact, once students understand how and why to write as scholars, plagiarism will become a non-issue.

When we encounter instances of plagiarism in student writing, they are very rarely the result of cold calculation or malicious intent. Plagiarism is usually the result of panic reactions to overwhelming pressure or of an unfamiliarity with the premises of academic knowledge production. In both those cases, plagiarism originates in an institutional failure to provide students with strategies of academic writing that make them feel secure in what they’re doing.

One aspect of this institutional failure is that we have normalized a view of plagiarism as a moral problem instead of a technical one. In my experience as a student, when plagiarism was addressed in academic writing instruction, a lot of effort seemed to be put into instilling the fear of academia’s righteous wrath into us by evoking the dire consequences of fraudulence and intellectual theft.

This is a problem because it puts students under a kind of blanket suspicion. It assumes that they are all potential fraudsters if they aren’t extra vigilant. It’s a deficiency-oriented way of teaching that focuses on mistakes and punishment and ultimately stifles academic expression. It took hard work to emancipate myself from the anxiety of doing things wrong and the fear of committing plagiarism by accident. 1

So, what can we do better in our writing instruction? First, we can avoid student-shaming and fear-mongering and frame plagiarism exclusively as a very specific technical problem. Second, we can put more effort into explaining the underlying reasons for why academics are so invested in authorship, attribution, and accountability.

Teaching students about plagiarism as a technical problem is useful because for many best practices of scholarship it is not at all self-evident how exactly they work.

Consider questions like these:

  • When is a paraphrase too close to the original (even when properly referenced)?
  • Which factual statements can count as common knowledge and which need to be backed up with a citation?
  • How to deal with it when you find out that someone else has previously had the exact same insight as you?
  • How many words constitute a quotation that needs to be referenced?
  • Which technical terms need to be referenced? When do I need a specific page number for those and when is referencing a volume or even just the author enough?

The answers to these questions are not easy to give, they usually require a look at the individual text with knowledge of context and of comparative cases. It is easy, even for experienced scholars, to get it wrong 2, so teaching best practice on the technical level to novices takes a lot of effort, examples, and exercises.

I frame the learning of best practice as the acquisition of a positive expertise that gives access to the communal project of academic scholar­ship

But I feel that this part of teaching writing is best done by avoiding the mention of ‘plagiarism’ entirely: the word alone raises affective filters that are not useful.

Instead of telling students “do not do this, be careful to avoid that” and thereby framing writing as a precarious endeavour that can easily lead to errors and disastrous missteps, I frame the learning of best practice as the acquisition of a positive expertise that gives access to the communal project of academic scholarship and science.

Most importantly, if we introduce students into the positive practice of scholarship – i.e. putting forward an idea, making an argument, taking and defending a position –, they will avoid plagiarism as a matter of course. Once you understand yourself as a scholar, plagiarism as a moral problem – stealing someone else’s idea and hiding the fact – doesn’t make sense anymore.

I think this is one of the reasons that I as a writing supervisor almost never receive papers with plagiarized sections: My supervision practice is geared toward taking students seriously as researchers and empowering them to express their own ideas. This in itself, together with empathetic strategies of communicating about the individual student’s writing process, reduces anxiety levels to such an extent that students don’t get into a position where they would see plagiarism as a way to cope with pressure to perform.

Students don’t need moralizing lectures with a wagging finger. What they need is:

  • the freedom to explore their own ideas and writing styles,
  • an explanation of why the scholarly community puts such great value on making an original argument, making the author’s positionality explicit, and disclosing all intellectual influences,
  • and they need to be welcomed into and made part of this scholarly community with their own meaningful contributions.

If, all throughout your school career, you have learned to internalize and regurgitate ‘scientific fact’ and hegemonic knowledge, the underlying individual scholarship becomes anonymous and invisible. It’s just not easy to see why we should cite any individual author for an idea that seems to be treated as universally accepted fact. Textbooks in school or university don’t usually reference their sources in detail – they summarize the state of the art and thereby hide that scientific knowledge is the result of long and difficult processes of contestation and negotiation, often over minute details, where the contributions of individuals matter hugely.

So, only if students are granted ownership of their own ideas can they understand why individual authorship, accountability, and attribution are so important in science as community-based knowledge production. If we do this first, then the issues that we now call plagiarism will become so rare and minor that we don’t even have to teach students ‘about plagiarism’ anymore.

  1. Looking through old handouts from the years I tutored first-year students in essay writing, I notice that I’ve been guilty of the ‘fire and brimstone’ approach myself. But even in these handouts, I already made clear that students plagiarize not out of malevolence but out of fear and stress. ↩︎

  2. In fact, I routinely read published, peer-reviewed scholarship with referencing so vague or sloppy that it would be punished in student writing by bad grades or fails (and accusations of plagiarism). And there are perfectly normalized practices in some disciplines where professors put their names on articles that were written by their doctoral students, or where they give out topics for BA and MA theses just to produce research that they can then use as the basis for their own publications (without giving credit). What you get away with, or what counts as plagiarism, seems not least to be contingent on the social privilege you gain in the course of an academic career. ↩︎


Florian Kelle

23. Juni 2020

I really think we shouldn't demonize plagiarism.

During my recent research and editorial work, I have come to realize that a lot of what is framed as plagiarism becomes "everyday practice" in academic works. I have closely worked with a handful of authors and followed their writing across decades at times: Their ideas, and sometimes even word for word expressions repeat, often without any mention of prior works. Some go through the process of providing foot or end notes to mention that parts of chapters have been recycled, but it is not the norm. I always find myself wondering whether there is a fine line between self-plagiarism and authorial arrogance/obliviousness once you become an established, dominant voice. The same applies for myself doing research: The more I read, the more I am enraptured by the ideas of others, and, at some point the lines between my ideas and those of others blur. How do I give credit where credit is due when I don't know when or why credit is due?

Common knowledge is another issue. Having worked with Graham Harman, for instance, I stumbled upon books upon books that treat any of Heidegger's ideas as common knowledge with no pagination or sources given at all. The fast pace at which some academics figures disgorge publications make it even worse: The closer you look, the more serious errors you find in sound academic writing (and I'm not talking typos here). Yet, it goes unnoticed/unpunished. It's not just that you "can" get away with more, the more renowned you are, there also seems to be no time or interest in recuperating this(?).

I personally like to draw a line between plagiarism and bad practice: Plagiarism is intentional, bad practice is just what it is. Copy & paste certainly qualifies as plagiarism. Paraphrasing on the other hand, is a fickle creature. How many synonyms for verbs and adjectives can you find before meaning is skewed, just to make sure you maintain enough distance to the original? There's only so many words you can use in a language; maybe rethink your styling altogether. Poorly edited works, where footnotes or in-line citations indicate a wrong source are (most of the time) just bad practice. So long as the original author is mentioned it's (to me) just an issue of bad practice and poor editing. I do, though, realize the line is hard to draw, especially in a context of teaching students academic integrity.

My best practice (anthropology/philosophy) recently has been to work with a lot of block quotes and the occasional in-line citation. Even a book of, say, 300 pages often only holds 3-10 relevant citations to your cause. I cite them directly and wrap my personal ideas and arguments around that while going from one citation to the next. Paraphrases I usually limit to whole books or chapters to bolster my own arguments or as a counter argument. This best works for literature reviews only or in footnotes, though.

tl;dr: pick a few juicy citations, mark them as such, and use them in your favor to make a claim or make the original author feel sorry for having though something "wrongly". Work with them. Think. Rethink. Undo. Redo. Your paragraphs need not necessarily be 50% citations. Neither does your bibliography need to explode.

Tyll Zybura

26. Juni 2020

Thanks for the comment, Florian!

I always find myself wondering whether there is a fine line between self-plagiarism and authorial arrogance/obliviousness once you become an established, dominant voice.

Yes, how fine the line is depends on the yardstick you measure these established voices against. Just like you, I know many examples of scholars who quite obviously copy & paste from their previous publications without proper referencing. Although we would at least call that ‘bad practice’, I personally think it’s not a problem at all as long as the newer publications build on the previous scholarship to add new insights – to me that seems to be the very essence of what doing science is all about. To call it ‘self-plagiarism’ seems ridiculous, even if the hegemonic discourse of what constitutes plagiarism would actually require it.

The real problem is that this kind of behaviour, which everyone tolerates when “established voices” (as you call them) do it, is not accepted in student writing. By the way we blow plagiarism out of proportion as a serious problem in our writing instruction, the humanities often actively discourage students from building on previous papers, expanding them with new research, new data, new insights. Another reason to think more critically about how we teach about plagiarism (or not).

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