“Dear Plagiarist”

More plagiarism in the news this week– actions do (sometimes) have consequences.

Regret the Error reported that Hailey Mac Arthur, a college student working as a summer intern at the Colorado Springs Gazette, was fired after it was discovered that four of her stories were plagiarized from the New York Times.  Here’s the July 7th Editor’s Note from the Gazette revealing the plagiarism and student’s name. Her school, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, issued a statement on their website that they are “looking into” the plagiarism allegations, they are “withholding judgment” until they investigate, and they emphasized their “unwavering policy against plagiarism of any kind.”

“It’s simple: We don’t tolerate plagiarism,” said the college’s dean, John Wright. “There’s no way you can be a student in our college and not know that we consider plagiarism a grave transgression.”

…Professors and instructors in the college discuss plagiarism in their classes and let students know that even minor offenses can result in a failing grade and possible expulsion from the program and UF.

“From the first semester of the freshman year, journalism students have the evils of plagiarism pounded into their skulls,” said the chair of the journalism department, William McKeen. “That message is part of every course we teach.”

Master Lecturer Mike Foley, former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, tells his students on the first day of class that he would advocate kicking out anyone who “steals the words of others.”…

“This case is a stunning aberration,” Foley said. “Our students know better.”

On the Inside Higher Ed website, G. Thomas Couser, a professor of English at Hofstra University, has written an open letter to one of his students, titled “Dear Plagiarist.” Here’s an excerpt:

When you got your paper back with a grade of F for plagiarism, you reacted in predictable fashion — with indignant denial of any wrongdoing. You claimed “you cited everything” and denied that you had committed intentional plagiarism, or ever would….

I suspect that, because too many professors (many of them adjuncts fearful of student backlash) overlook or are unwilling to pursue plagiarism — the process can be labor intensive, and it is always unpleasant — cheating has become a way of life for many students, and they are genuinely surprised at being held responsible for it. So I don’t doubt that your shock is real.

When I declined to believe your initial denial, you reiterated it less strongly (“OK, I used SparkNotes, but I reworded everything”) and appealed to me for leniency on various grounds: first, that you didn’t know that paraphrase required documentation; second, that you had in fact read the book you were supposed to be analyzing (Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and, third, that the low term grade resulting from your F on the paper would cost you your scholarship.

With regard to your first claim, I have to admit that your paraphrase was very thorough, so much so that Turnitin.com, to which you were required to submit your paper for screening, did not lead me to SparkNotes. There were other clues, however: the potted nature of your off-topic observations and, more obviously, your paper’s entire lack of specific page references to your primary source. Also, earlier, less skillful plagiarists had alerted me to the SparkNotes on Girl, Interrupted, so I knew where to look.

Your second claim is also familiar; student plagiarists often claim that they thought documentation is only necessary for quotation. For all I know, this excuse may have worked for them before. But any adequate discussion of plagiarism will correct that misimpression, as I do in course documents you should have read. As a college student, you should know that the key to responsible use of secondary sources is to cite them openly from the get-go and to indicate clearly the boundary between your words, insights, and ideas, and those of your source. But you relied almost entirely on SparkNotes for your observations…

Your use of the online “study guide” SparkNotes is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such guides very rarely enable students to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a student has actually read (as a student I occasionally used them that way myself), but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of true college writing….

The reason that plagiarism like yours makes professors so sad – and, yes, sometimes mad — is that it entirely defeats our attempts to educate you. We work hard to put you in a position to reach understandings that you would not otherwise be able to attain… Cannibalizing a source like SparkNotes is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do… The problem is not so much rule breaking as point missing….

If you take the text I’ve marked above in bold type and make a few simple substitutions (“Wikipedia” for “SparkNotes,” “writer” for “student,” etc.), you get one of the important lessons that Chris Anderson still hasn’t learned from the plagiarism kerfuffle over his new book, Free:

Your use of Wikipedia is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such websites very rarely enable writers to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a  writer has actually read, but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of writing books. Cannibalizing a source like Wikipedia is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do.

3 responses to ““Dear Plagiarist”

  1. Lisa, that is the best and most concise evaluation of exactly what’s wrong with Anderson’s “Free” that I have read so far. I opened up the digital version of Free to read a few pages — “short-circuiting the thinking process” captures it exactly.

  2. “independent analysis of primary sources”
    That says it all for me. But it can be hard sometimes to seperate primary source from commentary. Thanks for the read.

  3. Pingback: Anti-Plagiarism Day! | How Publishing Really Works

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