It’s not plagiarism if…

… you are not caught?

Of course, this isn’t true, is it. It’s plagiarism because we know when plagiarism occurs. It happens when we take ideas or the embodiment of those ideas without giving credit. But, as academics we do that every day. We give lectures without footnotes, we entertain ideas in our everyday conversations (and in our blogs!) without knowing whether we are plagiarizing.

The question becomes even more difficult when it is one of amount. We had a problem with plagiarism last year among our graduate students; chiefly, but not exclusively, the foreign graduate students. The most egregious case was one of basically knitting together two existing texts, with only a few words here and there to hold them together. (This student was dismissed.) This year we were excruciatingly explicit that this was not acceptable, even having students sign plagiarism statement.

And now, as I look over my papers from my theory class this semester, I find two cases of complete sentences, or parts of sentences, being lifted from documents. In most cases, the documents are cited, but there are no quotation marks around the cut-and-paste sections.

So how many words in a row constitutes an act of textual theft?

Frankly, the question of “property” is not particularly important to me. What is more important is whether the student has understood the ideas the he or she is purportedly espousing. In the case of the student who knitted together the two essays, it was clear that the understanding of the topic was virtually non-existent. But when someone has made use of a number of partial sentences, is it fair to say that they don’t know what they are talking about?

It’s entirely possible, at the extreme end, to imagine a paper that was made entirely of short cut-up pieces of several extant pieces of literature. Is this still plagiarism? Certainly, the size of the chunks matter. If the chunks are single words, then we would consider there to be more authorship, if they are single pages, we would consider it more artifice.

This calls to mind the Chinese Room model, or the Turing Test. The point of these writing exercises is (ostensibly) to evaluate whether the students “know” something. If I want to know if Jack knows about agenda setting (I could have picked symbolic interactionism, but that would have made things far more complicated), I can ask him “What is agenda setting?” What do I do if he hands in McCombs & Shaw’s article?

At one level, that he can produce that seminal article demonstrates that he knows about agenda setting, but it doesn’t say that he knows the theory itself. This quickly devolves into a morass. What, really, is “understanding”? Perhaps it is the ability to apply an idea in another context.

There are other problems. I detected these two cases because of slight differences in style that tipped me off. In my experience, one or two small cut-and-paste pieces means that there are many more that I did not detect. But what about those students who write well enough that it is impossible to detect those sections that are lifted? Or, as in the case last year, what if they are lifting not from published work, but from other student work?

Maybe I have just been grading too much. I didn’t fail either student: zero tolerance doesn’t work. They have rewrites due back to me. I guess I run the rewrites through a checking program. At least it can quantify the amount of material that has been taken from elsewhere.

And what of the policy? It originally said “any two words together” as too much to take. Of course, that is unworkable. This entry, when taken as word pairs, would constitute a single example of plagiarism. What is needed is a clear and clean line–a standard by which we can compare a given text. Considering the difficulties the FCC is having with clear lines lately, I have a feeling this is asking for too much.

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