by Robin Ewing

The Columbia Journalism Review this week  published a thoughtful article on plagiarism and the trickiness of defining it in a digital world where “all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” (That quote from the CJR article also comes from a 2007 Jonathan Lethem article about plagiarism, which comes from Mark Twain, which comes from who knows where, which is the reason it was used in an article on plagiarism).

Plagiarism accusations abound. Most recently BuzzFeed accused politician Ben Carson of plagiarism, an Australian columnist as well as the news director of Mic was fired for it, even superstar Malcolm Gladwell was accused of it and Johann Hari, who was suspended from The Independent for plagiarism in 2011, just published a book called Chasing the Scream (see my Billie Holiday post here), which the Guardian says is colored by his earlier infractions.

Michael Kinsley writes on the plagiarism of Fareed Zakaria — who was suspended from Time and CNN in 2012 and is once again involved in a similar situation of not attributing all his quotes — saying, “Somewhere between plagiarism and homage there is a line. Fareed stepped over it.” But he also acknowledges that having to attribute every idea can strangle a story and that just because you give credit to one writer, doesn’t mean you’ve actually given credit to the correct writer. How can we know what is original? Or, is the larger question: is anything actually original?

I often give the New Yorker article The Plagiarist’s Tale — the extreme story of novelist Quentin Rowan who wrote an entire book that was a mashup of other spy novels — to my students to start a conversation on what originality is.  Some said that Rowan’s complex level of plagiarism involved more work than actually writing a book and that it should be viewed as art, a tribute to every spy cliche that has even been. Rowan, on the other hand, said himself it was clearly stealing and he apologized for it.

In that same CJR article referenced earlier, the author says young people, that ever expanding group that has coexisted with the Internet since birth, don’t see copying as wrong, don’t feel guilt and don’t really care who said what first. And The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill defines plagiarism as “deliberate or reckless.”

I deal with student plagiarism on a regular basis. Does that mean when my students give me a confused look after I point out a background sentence copied from Wikipedia or a couple of sentences taken from a travel website that it’s not plagiarism? That when they tell me they were going to write the same thing but what’s the point because someone else wrote it better am I supposed to let them off the hook? Should I overlook the lifting of quotes from other media because, the student says, it’s nearly identical to what the same source said in the student interview? I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to do any of that. Perhaps, I am just the old-fashioned teacher decrepitly clutching  onto the slippery value of authorship (and by the way, those last three words were taken from the CJR article).

The hard part as a teacher is not so much plagiarism detection but instead deciding if the transgression was accidental or deliberate, ranking it on some internal gauge of seriousness and then deciding what the consequences should be. Do we allow plagiarists to continue studying? to continue publishing? Hari did with his new book and this time around  made a point of attributing every fact in detail and even posting his audio interviews online.

A 2012 survey of instructors came up with 10 types of plagiarism, ranked by severity of intent and with examples provided by the expensive but widely used plagiarism software detector Turnitin. Since the software has yet to write an algorithm to detect the plagiarism of ideas, it settles for plagiarism of words. This has led to criticism that Turnitin is “a billion-dollar entity that emphasizes a rhetoric of fear for students, that over-emphasizes attention to surface issues like grammar and spelling, and that attempts to naturalize machine scoring of essays as authentic assessment.”

The survey doesn’t list a kind of plagiarism described in the CJR article: journalism aggregation or the producing of articles based on the work of others, much like this post I am writing right now. You might read this and then reference me as a source on plagiarism instead of properly attributing Marc Fisher at CJR or Jonathan Letham at Harper’s or Mark Twain in his letter to Helen Keller, in which he also said, “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.”


Take the Gawker quiz on how to tell if you’re a plagiarist: 

  1. Did you write it?
  2. Did you cite it?

Gawker’s Answer Key:

If you answered Yes, No, you are an honest student.
If you answered No, Yes, you are an honest student.
If you answered No, No, you are a plagiarist.
If you answered Yes, Yes, that doesn’t even make sense.