The Conundrum of Plagiarism

Let’s establish one thing: An absolute prohibition on plagiarism would mean the end of art, since nothing is completely original. All art draws on art, directly or indirectly, and artists find their own way learn through certain kinds of imitation and reworking. In addition, covers, renditions, adaptations are art in themselves; when you play someone else’s song, you both give it honor and turn it into something new. Nor can art credit all its sources; there are too many, and the footnotes and credits would be pedantic. In some cases, an allusion is supposed to be familiar to the reader, viewer, or listener; spelling out the source would ruin the recognition that the listener, reader, or viewer might experience.

So any approach to plagiarism has to account for the millions of instances where it is not plagiarism at all, or where there is room for doubt.

Why, then, does plagiarism cause such a cluck-cluck-clucking? Why do people get shocked and ruffled when they spot it?

The reason is that it can amount to shameless stealing. When a novelist lifts entire passages from someone else’s work, passing them off as her own; when a published poem turns out to have been copied from elsewhere; when dissertations turn out to have substantial lifted portions, the person doing the lifting is receiving some kind of credit or benefit without giving credit in return. In addition, the person has evaded at least part of the work involved in creation. For this reason, schools used to have strict rules against plagiarism.

I say “used to” because even though plagiarism is still prohibited across most school systems, few bother to take the time to enforce the rules. Students have become savvier: instead of simply copying from the internet, they might run a text through Google Translate, retrieve something from deep in a fanfiction site, or even use an AI writing tool. I have asked my students what they think about this—and while some of them say plagiarism is wrong, others just shrug their shoulders and say that if it helps them get their homework done, “oh well.”

Teachers, too, need to get their grading done, so a lot of the time they will look the other way and assume that the piece wasn’t plagiarized, even if their gut tells them that it didn’t come from the student.

It’s not a question of being too “good” to come from the student. Sometimes the language seems peculiarly canned or even—beneath a veneer of platitudes—profoundly nonsensical. Take, for instance, the following three sentences (generated by The Good AI): “Humor is a form of communication that uses wit and sarcasm to make people laugh. It’s also used to communicate with others, as well as in everyday life. Humor can be found everywhere: on TV, in movies, books, magazines and even in the news.” They are entirely uncontroversial, but weird if you look at them closely. If humor is a “form of communication” (as established in the first sentence), why bother adding that it is “also” used to communicate with others? And what about that “everywhere” in the third sentence? Do “TV, movies, books, magazines, and …. the news” come close to constituting “everywhere”?

This kind of plagiarism involves not only laziness but cynicism (because someone is playing someone else for a fool). But the cynicism goes beyond the agent. Everyone takes part in it. Rituals like homework often take too much time to take seriously, so both the teacher and the student skim and skimp. Or, if the teacher doesn’t, the school does, and if not the school, then the disciplinary code. Students caught plagiarizing are typically given the benefit of the doubt and a chance to redo the assignment (which is the way it should be, until this too becomes an automated ritual: the student changes a few words so that the piece isn’t copied any more, credit gets given, and the matter gets dropped).

Like any teacher with more than a hundred students, I often grade homework quickly. But I also take time with students’ writing, and the time I take is only a fraction of what the students need. They are not learning to write. The language textbooks and tests emphasize short “writing tasks,” where, for instance, they must respond to a hypothetical internet post, fulfilling certain specific requirements. If they fulfill all the requirements, make no mistakes, and use appropriate vocabulary and tone, they get a top score. That kind of writing is so bland by design that it exists for the sake of the task alone, nothing more. On the test, you can’t copy from elsewhere (except through clever cheating), but on homework—the student figures—why not?

But what about subjects other than language? In public schools in Hungary (and, I suspect, in many European countries), high school students (and even university students, up to a point) are not expected or assumed to have original ideas in subjects where ideas come into play. To prepare for literature or history exams, they do not need any individual angle on the topics involved; instead, they need to know what has already been said about these topics. A teacher might encourage them to develop their own ideas or to compare two different perspectives, but in general they are expected to learn what the textbook says, period. In the U.S., much more lip service is given to students’ “own ideas,” but far too little to what it means to have an idea of your own (to the extent that it can be your own).

So copying from elsewhere doesn’t even have to come from laziness; it can come from the belief that you have nothing of your own to say anyway, or that no one really cares what you think.

That leads to the question: Why do some people choose to write? After the homework is done, after the work tasks are over, some people take to the notebook or computer and spend hours with words, maybe because they enjoy putting words together, maybe because they have something to say. How do you know when you have something to say, and how do you know that it is in some way yours? You don’t know, and yet you do. You figure this out over time, with certainty and doubts combined.

In that light, who can blame those who really don’t feel that they have anything to say, yet have to churn out some “writing task” anyway, if they take some of the burden off of themselves?

Yet everyone should learn the basic skills of writing—at least to the point where they know how to construct a coherent paragraph out of coherent sentences. (Many times in my life I have been able to resolve a business complaint or other official matter with the help of a strong letter.) They should also learn the skills of attribution: quotes, indirect references, footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies. They should practice certain kinds of creative writing—because the best essays and letters have an imaginative spark to them, and stories are essential to life. For the sake of these skills, there must be several major writing assignments per year, with several drafts (the first draft perhaps starting in the classroom). The rest is up to the individuals and how seriously they choose to take writing in general.

That’s a big undertaking for everyone, but with reasonable pacing, it can be done. Language itself is at stake here. Plagiarism at its most automatic, its least thoughtful, amounts to a regurgitation of clichés. It feeds on apathy and generates still more. When you think out a sentence, when you put it on paper and test it for sound and sense, you send the apathy scampering away. You may also get a temporary headache, or a sensation of thinking too hard, but language will tip its hat in awkward thanks, and over time the graces will grow.

The picture above shows one of Bob Dylan’s paintings, featured in his Asia series at the Gagosian Gallery on NYC’s Upper East Side in 2011, next to a 1950 photograph by Dmitri Kessel. This and several other likenesses (discovered after the exhibition went up) resulted in some controversy. My own opinion: This particular copying was dishonest in that the Gagosian claimed that the paintings were of scenes from Dylan’s travels, from his direct observations of life. But I do not perceive Dylan as the most honest fellow, and that is part of his particular genius. There would be no Dylan without a bit of trickery. Does that excuse something like this? No, but excusing is beside the point. Dylan is, and the world is richer for it.

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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