A Different View of Plagiarism
Our UNG English department had an interesting faculty development workshop right before classes started, and I thought its message would be helpful for readers of this blog.
The workshop was conducted by Chris Anson, a professor of rhetoric and composition at North Carolina State, who is also an expert witness in plagiarism lawsuits – usually lawsuits of students who sue schools when the schools accuse them of plagiarism.
We all – English or otherwise – should be concerned with plagiarism, but it is clear those faculty who teach writing-intensive classes care about it differently, not just its quantity. And sadly, it is the job of all faculty – not just those who teach First Year Composition – to teach and assign in such a way as to encourage student writing, not student plagiarism.
Anson’s main takeaway was how to design assignments as to lessen the probability of plagiarism. You likely have heard of a few of his suggestions – don’t redo assignments from multiple, previous semesters and make the writing process long and helpful, not all “high stakes” like tests.
But what I think is interesting and helpful to non-English faculty is his evidence and claims on plagiarism outside the academy.
Anson showed us a series of phrases about insurance and tourism that proliferated on the internet, exactly the same, with no attribution or citation. Government, business, and many sites in between used the same phrase over and over.
Then he talked about the differences between writing in college as a military student and writing in the military. Anson called the latter (based on his experience working with military writers) like writing within the Star Trek Borg – no authorship, no citation of individual authors, merely writing done by the organization. He then compared that to the military honor code common at schools like UNG. Here is UNG’s version: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, plagiarize, evade the truth, conspire to deceive, nor will he/she tolerate those who do.”
And, of course, we then debated what is and is not plagiarism, to us.
These anecdotes prompted this question afterward from a colleague: what then do we tell our students about writing in the “real world” if plagiarism – as we see it on campus – is not the same to people in those fields?
Or put it a different way, assuming Anson’s premises about the business community and the military: what if our students saw this presentation and thought plagiarism is not cared about in business or military? How might we explain to them the importance of the honor code at UNG? And, if you didn’t know, our code echoes the military one: “On my honor, I will not lie, cheat, steal, plagiarize, evade the truth, conspire to deceive, or tolerate those who do.”
My answer: Anson’s presentation was not merely about plagiarism.
It was about how we at UNG prepare students to be ethical.
As we all know, UNG is a leadership institution that also educates many military officers. And so, we are preparing leaders – those who not only act ethically but train and supervise others who will as well. We are not merely telling them the rules or standards or even commonplace good behaviors in their fields. We are asking them to use their UNG education to balance, qualify, and nuance situations, particularly writing situations.
Of course, as should be clear, one of those situations is how plagiarism is different in different contexts, how authorship works in different organizations, and how code of ethics are only a starting point for professionals.
One example of what I am getting at comes from a well-cited article in my field: “Between Efficiency and Politics” by Cezar Ornatowski. In it, he describes an interview he did with a young professional engineer, a man he named Stephen, who worked for a major aerospace firm testing engines. Stephen tested this one engine, and it had some major problems – the most severe being it would not start after a “cold test.” Basically, they hold the engine in icy water for a while and pull it out and it should start. It didn’t. Stephen tried several times.
And so, Stephen was faced with an ethical decision: what word to use to describe what he did? He called it his “political sentence.”
He told Ornatowski: “I don’t think I actually put the agonizing I did over the sentence in here. But I agonized over this because I didn’t want to say, let’s see, it still says ‘fruitless initially,’ and that’s essentially what . . . that’s what I ended up saying. But you don’t want to say ‘hopeless’ whereas there was no way this thing was going to start, and that’s really what it was.”
It was a “horror show,” but he understated the horror.
Why? Because he was caught between telling the “technical” truth “while at the same time telling it within the boundaries of outcomes and implications of events acceptable to his supervisors and to the report’s customers,” Ornatowski wrote.
And as a good writer, Ornatowski notes, Stephen was able to “negotiate successfully the subtle boundary between, on the one hand, the stylistic and formal demands of clarity, objectivity, neutrality . . . and on the other hand, the institutional, social, and situational (read: political) demands placed” on his text, the report.
Obviously, this is not a case of plagiarism. But it is a case of ethics in writing – specifically, to reference the honor code, lying or evading the truth.
If we are merely checking for plagiarism through websites like Turnitin.com – and English professors can be just as guilty as others with this – then we are not teaching writing as an ethical decision. We are not teaching at all.
Students at UNG are expected to “be forthright and honest in all their social and academic conduct; and in general, conduct themselves in a manner which brings credit to themselves and the University.”
To me, it’s that last part that applies here.
How do we teach them to do that?
It’s going to look different in different disciplines, but if you see writing merely as an individual putting their ideas to paper or on a screen, not plagiarized or stolen, then I think you need to expand that definition and consider Stephen’s choice above.
And consider how teaching students about plagiarism in the academy may not be the fullest education they need. They also need the more comprehensive education of writing as an ethical activity.
If you have interest in the wider discussion of writing as ethics, you can read my article “From Deliberation to Responsibility: Ethics, Invention, and Bonhoeffer in Technical Communication.” Or talk with the Student Integrity office. Finally, you can visit this resource on “Fostering Academic Integrity and Reducing Plagiarism.”