Copycat criminality

Christopher Bigsby on plagiarism in the cut-and-paste era

August 30, 2012

Just as women are liable to divide men into two categories - those who remember anniversaries and those who leave the toilet seat up - so there are students who understand plagiarism and those who do not. One undergraduate explained that she had, indeed, copied her essay from her boyfriend, but did not know that he had stolen it from the web. That was her defence.

Then there are those who take a chance. Another student submitted an essay in which the only original word was “and”. He had gone to two different websites and downloaded free sample essays, with his contribution being the well-thought-out and perfectly formed conjunction on which alone he would have to be judged: “I thought your use of the word ‘and’ was particularly apt, a word, after all, to be found in some of the greatest works of literature, resonant as it is of that linkage, that bringing together of fragments to form a whole, which is the essence of human life - you plagiarising bastard.”

I’ve even had students copy from my own books, no doubt believing (as it turns out entirely accurately) that I would not remember what I had written any more than I can remember where I put my glasses 30 seconds ago. Indeed, more than once I have inadvertently plagiarised myself, although I prefer to think of this as cryptomnesia, a condition in which we fail to recognise a memory as such and believe it to be an original thought. Certainly cryptomnesia beats “my grandmother died again” hands down when it comes to appearing before disciplinary committees. Incidentally, my wife often accuses me of stealing her memories, not least because hers are better than mine.

Sophisticated student plagiarists claim to be postmodernists incorporating the work of others in an ironic way, the chief irony being that they believe this to be convincing. They object that artists have always copied the great masters as, indeed, they have, except that some of those doing so are now mixing their oil paints in Pentonville.

The problem is that this is a generation whose first words after “mama” and “dada” were “cut and paste”, and whose patron saint is Wikipedia, a source we advise students not to use. A Duke University study in 2005 found that 58 per cent of high school students had plagiarised at least once.1 This is a generation allowed to take their books into A-level examinations, complete with annotations, pencilled notes, essay plans and the telephone numbers for sexually transmitted diseases clinics.

Incidentally, is this where the practice of writing in library books and highlighting passages in yellow comes from? In a library copy of Hamlet, a student had responded to the soliloquy on whether to be or not with a single word, pressed hard into the margin: “Rubbish!” Succinct, to be sure, and one step on from “and”, but not quite as critically sophisticated as one would have liked.

Students are now inducted into the mystery of the footnote, today often references to websites closed down by regulatory authorities. So they learn about “ibid” and “op cit”, the first of which sounds like an online betting site and the second police jargon for an absconder.

Plagiarism is a sub-clause of the Eighth Commandment2 against stealing and hence has the force of a biblical injunction, being one behind adultery and two before coveting oxen, a sin that seems to have fallen out of favour (except perhaps in rural Wales). On the other hand, every word I speak has passed through the lips of others, which, given that they include Father Jack and Madonna, can be disturbing.

Today, universities tend to use anti-plagiarism software. In 2007, though, students in Arizona sued one such company, claiming that it infringed their copyright by keeping their essays on its database (even, presumably, essays that had been plagiarised). Newspapers, too, have taken to using such software, understandably given that reporters on The New York Times, the Hartford Courant, The Washington Post, USA Today, The New Republic, The Independent and The Daily Beast have been fired for stealing or simply inventing stories. One had even won a Pulitzer Prize. So today’s essay thief may graduate to become tomorrow’s Reporter of the Year.

In an episode of The West Wing, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet delivers a moving speech, only for us to learn that it was actually written by his deputy communications director Sam Seaborn, who believes he has stolen part of it from Camelot the musical while in fact misquoting T. S. Eliot’s famous remark that immature poets imitate, mature poets steal. Plagiarism within plagiarism.

Eliot, however, continued: “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn”. This is no defence for the plagiarist.

Is plagiarism a mortal or venial sin, a sin, that is, which does not involve entire separation from the godhead? In Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953), a character has her virginity restored with every full moon. It’s a good trick if you can pull it off. Disciplinary committees have a similar power, declaring, “Go forth, and sin no more,” before adding, “and while you are at it, don’t multiply until your results are out.”

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