Plagiarism hunters, please lay down your weapons

A feudal approach to intellectual property has turned the academy into a modern police state, says Steve Fuller  

二月 5, 2020
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“Plagiarism” is the name of the collective neurosis of academic life – and it’s only getting worse.

Academics worry endlessly about both being plagiarised and being accused of plagiarism. The concern has even extended to self-plagiarism, which in a saner world would be regarded as an ordinary exercise of the author’s copyright. Moreover, the neurosis has spread from the research to the teaching side of academia. Customised computer systems now monitor students’ work to ensure that they haven’t cut and pasted from anyone, including themselves.

Wherein lies this madness? After all, from a strictly legal standpoint, the fixation on plagiarism gets the point of assigning property rights to intellectual products exactly backwards. The point is not to create an endless trail of debt, whereby those who come later must always pay backwards to their predecessors before proceeding forwards. On the contrary, the point of intellectual property rights is to ensure that those who come first enjoy a temporary advantage, before others appropriate the work to their own potentially greater advantage.

The sanity of the law here rests on an awareness that “intellectual property” – defined in terms of either ideas or words – is something that could have been generated by anyone, and it is only circumstance that enabled a particular individual to come first. It tracks a basic intuition about how ideas and words come to have value – namely, from the contributions of many to the benefit of many. In this respect, “intellectual property” is ultimately a matter of collective ownership. Indeed, it was a cornerstone of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s original 19th-century formulation of the philosophy he called anarchism.

The literary and art worlds have traditionally had a healthier relationship to plagiarism. For them, the problem with plagiarising an earlier work is less about being caught than, if caught, being judged to have produced a work inferior to the original. In the arts and letters, one’s own genius is proven only in so far as the audience forgets or ignores those from whom one has plagiarised. The late Yale literary critic Harold Bloom famously characterised the creative measures taken by poets to suppress their sources as the “anxiety of influence”.

In contrast, as University of Kentucky law professor Brian Frye has observed, plagiarism’s taboo status in academia has turned the university into a modern police state, based on principles that would not be out of place in medieval feudalism. Any academic is licensed and even encouraged to name and shame anyone else as a plagiarist, regardless of whether the plagiarised party cares that her words or ideas have been appropriated without permission.

Needless to say, students are also fair game in this world of intellectual vigilantism, around which some appalling pedagogy has developed. Instead of finding their own voice, students are instructed to prioritise looking for authorities who anticipated what they would like to say. It results in a weird kind of ventriloquism, sometimes called “dummy citation”. This is the practice, routinely found in both student and academic writing, of crediting “leading figures” with discipline-based truisms in order to demonstrate one’s own worthiness to contribute to the field. In both contexts, one’s own contribution is needlessly minimised, while the significance of one’s precursors is artificially inflated.

Of course, there is value in studying those who have previously followed a similar line of enquiry. But much of that value may be realised by effectively recycling old content in a new context. The student who cuts and pastes an earlier work in a way that satisfies the demands of an assignment is acting no differently from one of Bloom’s anxious poets who succeeds in obliterating the memory of those from whom she plagiarised. Both the student and the poet have exercised critical judgement, the proof of which lies in its reception. Does the plagiarism contribute to an original work or merely a poor copy of the original?

When aestheticians say that every great artist is a great critic, this is what they mean: great artists know what is worth using, and they use it well. The recent educational focus on “curation” aims to recover this attitude from the academic obsession with plagiarism.

Here, academia could learn from the writing conventions of other fields that conduct research. Take journalism: other journalists are explicitly cited only when one cannot say something in one’s own voice. This may be due to the general style of expression or a specific claim to knowledge, for which the author judges that she cannot take personal responsibility. But it does not follow that, say, the journalist is oblivious that others have said similar things in the past, perhaps even in the exact same words. But those words have lost their proprietary status through sheer publicity over time.

Many if not most academics fancy themselves as “anti-capitalist”, but that may be because they are the last feudal lords. They alone take the metaphors “domain of knowledge” and “field of research” literally, which ultimately explains the fixation on plagiarism. However, in our multiply sourced, interconnected world, the plausibility that the practitioners of a discipline might “own” the knowledge they professionally pursue is rapidly disappearing.

Academics need to let go of plagiarism and re-establish their authority on different grounds.

Steve Fuller is Auguste chair in social epistemology at the University of Warwick. He pursues these matters further in “Against Academic Rentiership: A Radical Critique of the Knowledge Economy”, published in Postdigital Science and Education in 2019.


Print headline: Stop the plagiarism persecution



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Reader's comments (6)

In the computer science department where I work, final year students take a 'software testing' module at the same time as they are doing their individual projects. The testing module coursework involves running appropriate tests on a piece of software - and for those who are producing a piece of software in the course of their project, it's an ideal opportunity to test their code. When they submit their project reports, the plagiarism detection system often complains as most don't trouble to rewrite what they said in the testing module coursework (why should they?), so I tell them to cite themselves in their reports - this always causes amusement! - and instruct the markers to be aware that they are re-using material in a legitimate manner.
My suggestion is that if we change the education paradigm and how we assess our students, we will not need plagiarism detection systems.
The article conflates three very different issues: intellectual property rights, plagiarism in research publications, and student plagiarism in coursework. Intellectual property rights are completely distinct from plagiarism. These are legal rights primarily concerned with economic aspects of work through copyright. Although IP rights may also concern recognition through moral rights, any remedies are likely to be restricted to only economic loss. Plagiarism in research publication has nothing to do with the law, although there may be some overlap when the work concerned has economic value. Research plagiarism is damaging because it impedes academic progress by breaking the visible links between earlier and later works. Self-plagiarism causes just the same damage if these links are hidden. Research is not simply a list of facts, but also about understanding the links between facts: this is how knowledge differs from information. In contrast, journalism is primarily about reporting facts, and the analysis of the facts carried out is much more opinion-based, while the literary and art worlds do not rely on cumulative knowledge in the way that many academic research fields require. Similarly, being a successful student is not simply a matter of being able to recall facts. The student who cuts and pastes an earlier work likely has no understanding of the material, even if they know the information. Originality in student work is not originality for originality's sake, but to develop a student's knowledge. The idea that academics oppose plagiarism in research because of individuals "owning" rights to their writing is completely topsy-turvy. Rather, the citation links created by connecting earlier and later work makes it easier for the entire community to share in knowledge together. It is right to get medieval and crusade against plagiarism.
It is not a productive use of staff and student time; 1. Creating environments in which students and academics are tempted to cheat, cheat, and often, even get away with it. 2. Policing plagiarism. We can make better use of time, effort, and resources, to advance knowledge and find solutions, by following the Open Source Software and Open Course Ware models.
Curious. A big issue with plagiarism is that it is dishonest - you're passing other people's work off as your own. But Fuller has chosen to ignore this in his argument. Ah well, I reckon I should wait about 6 months and submit this article under my name to another publication.
The focus of education should be on students and staff learning and building knowledge together, exploring new ideas, and looking for solutions to the problems facing humanity and the planet; future generations are facing major problems, like climate change, water and food shortages, pollution, bush fires, coastal erosion, entire island nations going underwater, difficulty managing epidemics like SARS and coronavirus, and, of course, the aging population! We all should be able to take ideas and knowledge and build on these; not waste students' time asking students to paraphrase, and our time trying to check for plagiarism. Assessment methods should be robust enough to ensure that no student is able to cheat; we should move to new paradigms in education, where no student finds themselves in situations where they find it easier to cheat than learn. This is an age where knowledge is available 24/7 free on the internet; machines are learning on their own; are we going to ask these self-learning-machines to "paraphrase" some "expert(s)" or let these machines come up with new knowledge, ideas and even comprehensive solutions to the complex problems we face today? Let us ditch the nineteenth century model of education and Bloom's taxonomy and find better models of education that will focus on learning and solving problems, and not waste students' time, our time and so much resources, creating environments in which students are tempted, and enabled, to cheat and teachers policing students.