I was a plagiarist - Macleans.ca
 

I was a plagiarist

The academy comes down too hard on honest mistakes


 

Maclean's writer Emma Teitel

From the Maclean’s University Rankings—on sale now.

It’s fall, and over 800,000 undergraduate students have just begun classes at universities across Canada. In the next 12 months, 32 per cent are likely to binge drink and smoke marijuana, 14 per cent will probably drop out, and—to introduce a new scholastic rite of passage—more than 1,000 will be accused of plagiarism. Scores will be convicted, but there’s a good chance only a few will be guilty of anything more than oversight. I know this because I am a plagiarist.

I was accused in my third year at Dalhousie University (a mature plagiarist, they would say) by a creative-writing professor a few days before reading week: I had failed to attribute a philosophical term, “category mistake,” to the philosopher who first used it, an omission that put me in direct violation of Dalhousie’s academic dishonesty policy. In addition, I gave an example of the term that was nearly identical to the example used by its originator, Gilbert Ryle, in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind. Here’s what I wrote: “Such a question is the stuff of a philosophical category mistake. For example, if a small child touring Halifax were to ask his mother and father ‘show me a university,’ the parents might take him on a tour of Dalhousie, showing him all the different faculty and athletic buildings, and confused, he would still ask, ‘show me a university,’ so the same concept applies to the question of film editing.”

I had assumed that Ryle’s phrase and its illustration had entered the academic vernacular, like Kant’s “categorical imperative.” I was wrong. I was also careless and ignorant. But I never thought I had done anything intentionally dishonest, let alone anything that could be called cheating. So how, then, could I have been charged with plagiarism?

The answer was simple. Honesty—or a lack thereof—has nothing to do with a large number of the errors that qualify as academic plagiarism in Canadian universities today. In fact, intent of any kind is often moot. “It doesn’t matter if you intend to plagiarize or not!” notes plagiarism.com (a website that converts academic dishonesty policies into plain English). “Ignorance is never an excuse.”

Except, of course, when it is. Or at least, when it should be. Plagiarism as defined by my alma mater is “the submission or presentation of the work of another as if it were one’s own.” In other words, plagiarism is meant to be an inherently moral error, not a technical one. It should be full of intent. But on university campuses today it’s morphed into a dishonesty policy that you can violate in an honest way. Which means it regularly paints honest (if careless or ignorant) people (like me) as dishonest ones, liars and cheats. When the world at large hears you’re a plagiarist, it doesn’t rush to the academic definition to verify it, it just assumes you’re a shady person. The fine print is forgotten. As American academic Stanley Fish wrote, “The rule that you not use words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution is less like the rule against stealing, which is at least culturally universal, than it is like the rules of golf.” Technicalities are not commandments.

I’m not suggesting we throw academic standards to the dogs or that errors in citation should go unpunished; only that university officials stop weighing technical transgressions on the same scale as moral ones. That’s dishonest.

It’s also a waste of time. My hearing—for which I prepared a 700-word statement, met multiple times with a student advocate (law student), and spent my entire reading week worrying about—took all of two minutes. And they were a strange two minutes. It was as though everyone other than the professor knew I hadn’t done anything really wrong, but that some larger force (one academic integrity officer later referred to it as a “monolith”) was making them punish me in formal fashion. At one point I asked the dean, “Do you acknowledge that I’ve violated the dishonesty policy honestly?” “Yes,” he said, “but you’ve still violated it.” In the end it was determined that I would attend a 90-minute session on intellectual property, as well as fail the assignment (for which I’d already received a whopping 29 per cent). But at least I wasn’t marooned.

In the summer of 2008, 19-year-old college student Allison Routman was taking the University of Virginia’s “Semester at Sea” course on board a ship touring the Mediterranean, when she was convicted of plagiarism for allegedly copying fragments of three lines from Wikipedia describing the plot of a movie into her global studies essay. Trip administrators immediately expelled her from the program and abandoned her at the next port, where she ended up sleeping in the airport. The reason: the University of Virginia has one of the strictest plagiarism policies in the academic world, requiring students to sign an honour code pledging not to lie or cheat on their assignments.

But I ask you: which is less honourable—making a citational error in an essay, or marooning someone in a foreign country with nothing more than cab fare? Would you even do that to a real plagiarist? After all, as T.S. Eliot once said, “Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.” Or maybe it was Picasso, and he was talking about art.

Someone said something.

Click here to read When professors plagiarize, a story by Charlie Gillis.


 

I was a plagiarist

  1. The author appears to be taking a position generally about the modern “University” and its response to plagiarism. But on what, I ask, is this position based? It would appear to be solely her own experience, which was clearly and understandably very troubling, and one other example – an extreme one, I would suggest – from the University of Virginia. Yet, statements such as “there’s a good chance only a few will be guilty of anything more than oversight”, and “it regularly paints honest (if careless or ignorant) people (like me) as dishonest ones, liars and cheats” are thrown in as if to suggest that the author knows something about all or most of the cases. Show me the evidence to back these claims and I’ll consider them, but until then, one or two examples does not prove the case. The author may very well be correct that she should not have been accused of plagiarizing. But generalizing? Guilty as charged.

  2. In my faculty, they also have taken draconian measures against plagiarism. With each and every assignment, without exception, whether its worth 0.05% or 40%, we must include a 2 page “contract” on top that states that “I’ve hereby read the rules of plagiarism and this is my own work”.

    I go through around 40 of these sheets per semester.

    Absurdity indeed.

  3. I’d also like to know what the example that she was supposed to have copied was. It’s difficult to assess an accusation of plagiarism without the full details!

    • She detailed the term she used and provided context…
      Would you like the whole document?

  4. Students are still learning the field and have a duty to show that they are clear about everything (sources etc.) from the ground up. That’s the good educational reason behind these so-called “technicalities.” I’m not quite sure what to make of this young writer’s experience. Maybe the professor’s reaction was overkill, especially if the rest of her essay was perfect.

    But the big picture here is the insinuation that students should be absolved of academic impropriety if they didn’t positively intend impropriety. But aren’t students responsible for learning what counts as academic impropriety and avoiding it? Especially when doing so isn’t too hard. As far as I know, all Canadian universities promote pro-integrity, anti-misconduct policies and acculturation measures. The directions that I give my students in this regard are clear, clear, clear. Yet the impression I get from the article is that avoiding plagiarism is hopelessly mysterious stuff, so students shouldn’t be blamed for going wrong “in good faith.” Nope. Students need to own up to their culpable status as “careless or ignorant” (the writer’s words).

    This article toys with the idea that plagiarism is often “merely” reckless and therefore no big deal. But isn’t recklessness a major concept in law, not an incidental factor?

    What’s the basic sentiment here? Just re-read the last line of the article. That truth, accuracy, and honesty, and doing things the right way, aren’t really important. And this from a journalist?

  5. The reason that intent is not included in plagiarism in modern universities is that, more often then not, intent is impossible to prove. If a student submitted an essay that was word-for-word from Wikipedia but they did not realise that that constituted plagiarism, should everyone just look the other way?

    The author’s situation is a minor case and whoever made the decision in her regard treated it that way. It seems to me that she is just publicly licking her wounds.

    Plagiarism is a serious matter that, outside of the university setting, can potentially have serious consequences on a person – far more serious than a 0 in a paper or, to use the author’s extreme example, sleeping in an airport. Your employer will not care whether or not you stole someone else’s ideas intentionally or not. The author should consider herself lucky for having been taught that informing yourself and details are important and move on.

  6. People seem to say that it is a serious matter and students need to know what they are doing and whether or not it is plagiarism. The key word here should be “student”.

    It does matter whether there was intent or not, especially in the case of this writer. She was a student who did not mean to do what she did and had no idea she had done anything wrong.

    How many of you knew everything right away and never made a mistake while in the leaning process, whether it was at school or in the workplace?

    We’ve all been student in some form or another and we’ve all made mistakes, which is after all, how we learn.

    This writer makes a great example of how a completely innocent mistake was met with an overreaction.

    In her example of the student studying on the ship, regardless of whether this was the same innocent mistake or if it was completely intentional, the punishment was a worse crime then the actual “crime” itself.

  7. MLFNH said: “People seem to say that it is a serious matter and students need to know what they are doing and whether or not it is plagiarism. The key word here should be ‘student’. . . . She was a student who did not mean to do what she did and had no idea she had done anything wrong. . . . . How many of you knew everything right away and never made a mistake while in the leaning process, whether it was at school or in the workplace?”

    Thanks. You’ve just unwittingly proven my point: People too often simply refuse to pay attention even when you’re flashing brilliant airport runway batons at them. S-o-o-o, as I said before, students are shown, in extraordinary detail, exactly what to do and what to avoid, so plagiarism is, at the least, a form of recklessness that rises to the level of criminality. Because, yes, plagiarism is a crime in the academic world, not just a cosmetic blemish that the guilty can pass off as a harmless oversight. Plagiarism gives the false impression that the words and/or ideas of others are your own, and demonstrates your incompetence regarding basic academic procedure. If you want to participate in higher education, you’d better pay attention to those detailed lessons about what to do and what not to do. Otherwise, you’re simply not fit for the task.

    Have fun defending your reckless (unthinking/heedless/rash) legal breaches to a police officer or judge on the ground that “everyone needs ‘learning experiences’.”

  8. “I had assumed that Ryle’s phrase and its illustration had entered the academic vernacular…”

    Herein lies the problem with the author’s example, I think. I can’t be sure because the author isn’t precise about how exactly she plagarized.

    The distinction she fails to make is whether or not she had encountered Ryle’s work before using his term and example in her paper. If she was familiar with Ryle’s study and had read the term “category mistake” with the example that he used that was apparently similar to her own, all she had to do was cite Ryle’s work. Literally, a footnote directing the reader to the pages on which Ryle’s ideas appear would have sufficed.

    If this the author did accidentally hit upon both a term and an example the originator of the term had used, well, what are the chances? You could see how a professor might be skeptical. But if the author had been introduced to the concept and its example either in class or when researching her essay, this is an example of the kind of plagiarism which is pervasive and which universities have a duty to root out.

    Despite not being a conscious attempt to deceive and pass off another’s work as your own, ignoring recognizing someone else’s work is not acceptable.

    Learn how to cite.

  9. Every word I have ever used has been uttered, written, recorded by, most likely, millions before me. There is so much literature and ideas out there that it wouls be near impossible to NOT have the same conclusion or examples that someone else has/had. If I were to cite everything in the assignments I had there would be more citations than my own text. Sure, there are plagiarists who hope to get away with it but to waste time and energy to ensure someone is “duly reprimanded” for accidentally making an unknown mistake? I spent 3 years in a post-secondary facility but I would not do very well today. The idea that the person who said something in their book/thesis/report etc, has the intellectual rights and NOBODY, ever, in the history of the world can have that same thought annoys me. I guess I can start researching what I’m going to write before I print it. Someone else may have the same opinion/facts that I do.

  10. Tony said: “Every word I have ever used has been uttered, written, recorded by, most likely, millions before me. There is so much literature and ideas out there that it wouls be near impossible to NOT have the same conclusion or examples that someone else has/had. If I were to cite everything in the assignments I had there would be more citations than my own text.”

    To tackle the issue a third time on this page, avoiding plagiarism is not rocket science. It’s pretty easy to accomplish as long as you pay attention to what you’re doing — and universities provide detailed instruction to students in this regard. Naturally, others have expressed or will express ideas and words similar to your own etc. But this doesn’t mean that proper attribution is a hopeless morass. You can use the ideas and even words of others — as long as you give credit. The fallacy is this: “Nothing can be untouched by other influences; everything’s tainted by influences, so why bother sorting out anything?” (Derrida, anyone?) Again, plagiarism is avoidable in principle. PERIOD. I can’t believe we have to argue the point.

    What might account for some of the misconceptions here? The same problems that lead some students into the dangerous waters of plagiarism: a refusal to focus on clear directions, an impatient inability (exacerbated greatly by digital distraction, I think) to deal with “mere” details or “technicalities,” and a lack of respect for the careful use of words and treatment of concepts.

    Other teachers (or students!), please help the cause and carry the torch for me now! I’m getting tired of explaining myself over and over . . . but then again, you probably know the feeling, too . . . .

  11. Sorry, but this is not an “honest mistake”. The writer knew the origin of the term she used, and chose not to cite that source. And her reasoning of “I had assumed that Ryle’s phrase and its illustration had entered the academic vernacular, like Kant’s “categorical imperative'”. Why would she “assume” this? Why didn’t she do some research to find out if her assumption was true? She deserved the penalty she received.

  12. Speeding is against the law. Many people speed and many people have an honest belief that they were not speeding as they had missed seeing the speed limit sign. They are still guilty of the crime. Missing the sign can be an honest mistake, but still will get a ticket. If the individual is traveling at 60 MPH and the speed reduces to 25 MPH for a school crossing and they run over the crossing guard, possibly their “honest mistake” has catapulted them into a life altering experience.
    While the writer possibly should have “paid attention” to the topic she was writing, she still got caught. She got a ticket. As she did not feel she was guilty, she challenged it in court and lost. Fortunately for her, the court fined her minimally and allowed her to continue her academic career with a stern warning, a traffic school penalty and a temporary loss of poetic license. She was not banned from driving (writing) as she became a professional driver (writer). It does not matter, as has been stated above, that the driver is new to driving (a student) – the penalty is the same. As it should be.
    I wonder if the writer will believe that this “honest mistake” is so harmless when her written word is used and presented by someone else as their own?

    • only if the author has studied at Berkeley, then she’d be fine.