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Disciplines and disciplining: Plagiarism in a Postmodern world

Plagiarism is undertaken for diverse reasons, though protecting commercial interests is either absent or of minimal importance in the way the concept is applied in Western societies. This essay discusses the meaning of plagiarism in Western societies as a Modern and Postmodern construct, investigates the reasons people plagiarise, and the reasons why it is punished. It will be shown that plagiarism is a multilayered concept that is culturally encoded as a disciplinary tool. A number of examples are given, as well as two complementary case studies, highlighting this aspect of plagiarism.

Just what plagiarism is, and what position it holds in Western societies, must first be addressed before reasons for it can be answered. Oxford Dictionaries defines plagiarism as “taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”, relating the word to a Latin derivation meaning a “kidnapper”. The word is first noted, however, only in the early Seventeenth Century, at the rise of the Modern era.

Plagiarism is closely tied up with the concept of copyright as it developed from the Eighteenth Century (Russikof, Fucaloro and Salkauskiene 109), and its underlying assumption that writers’ ideas and words, in contrast to previous generations, now had a tangible economic value which had to be protected. It thus develops from a commercial drive, but, as will be shown, its performance and punishment is undertaken for rather different reasons.

The new individuality and originality of ideas contrasts, however, with the much longer history of writing as an imitative art (Pennycook 206), which continues to remain problematic by its persistence (207). The Modernist notion of the author as privileged being (DeVoss and Rosati 194) is also now under threat by Postmodernist notions of the death of the author (Pennycook 210) and the notion that authorship has become less important on the internet, leading to the assumption that individual ideas can be freely taken and reused (DeVoss and Rosati 196). Spender goes so far as to claim that internet copying and pasting should be seen as the standard way of writing in a post-print medium (qtd in Samson 93). In this changing environment, plagiarism remains a concept primarily identified with maintaining a prescribed normative, Modernist, stance (Pennycook 227).

Plagiarism is far from universally defined or condemned. Von Grunebaum enumerates a huge number of distinctions within Arabic theory regarding plagiarism, a subject that changed and developed across time, but which always had a much finer-grained approach than the modern Western concept. Von Grunebaum relates the Arabic approach to classical Greek concepts, noting that both cultures considered creative works to be held in common (250-51). The points of judgement were not whether copying has occurred, but the quality of that copying.

Asian cultures consider direct quotations a mark of respect for scholarly statements (Russikof, Fucaloro and Salkauskiene 110), and a method of deepening learning (Pennycook 222). In India referencing is not expected at undergraduate study level, and unattributed quoting from textbooks is not considered plagiarism (Handa and Power 71-72). Martin Luther King, Jr did not plagiarise, Johannesen argues, but was following an oral cultural tradition (186). Even in Western cultures plagiarism is a tricky, mutable concept: artistic plagiarism is looked down on, yet artists learn by copying (Mullin 118), and in academic disciplines plagiarism is interpreted differently from faculty to faculty (Haviland and Mullin 16).

In Western societies, plagiarism describes a failure of a normative expectation to provide attribution to ideas (Green 174), though the norm is more enforced in some areas than others – politicians do not attribute their speechwriters but are not censured, for example (190) and journalists are unlikely to suffer if exposed as plagiarists (197). Furthermore, where common knowledge ends and plagiarising begins is ill-defined and reliant on individual interpretations (Chandrasoma, Thompson and Pennycook 181).

Plagiarism can be conceptualised as a means of establishing a person’s “network of power” (Maruca 87), though by what lens this is applied varies depending on what an authority chooses to emphasise: is it an issue of morals, of ethics, of citing correctly, of exhibiting textual knowledge, or an arbitrary social convention (89-90)? All of these can come under the term “plagiarism”.

The exercise of power is seen in Fish’s argument that plagiarism is not a philosophical or moral issue, or even related to whether a text is original or not, but a disciplinary practice, and it is within academic circles that the discipline is most strongly wielded (Martin 36), with Valentine noting that plagiarism is a method of controlling students’ identities (100). Indeed, a search for academic papers on plagiarism shows an overwhelming number dealing with the topic of academic plagiarism, rather than in other fields. Institutional definitions of plagiarism are authoritatively imposed on students, even though, as Ashworth, Bannister and Thorne found, students’ views on what constitutes cheating frequently differs from these (191). Education, of course, is one of the disciplines Foucault examined in the context of producing tractable workers through processes of surveillance and punishment. Plagiarism detection and sanctions are the example par excellence of this control (Zwagerman 686), especially since it imposes requirements on students that fail to correspond to the students’ own motivations. Gu and Brooks confirm that plagiarism is an intertextual activity that includes reader, text, and culture as a meaning-making process (339), but which eliminates the essential trust between educator and student (Zwagerman 703). The “disciplinary mechanism” which imposes hierarchical control is manifest in plagiarism (Foucault 197).

Pennycook provides a number of examples of plagiarism by academic authorities demonstrating that plagiarism is not, apparently, a crime to be eliminated, but a punishment to be meted out (for example, a paragraph forbidding plagiarism in a university handbook was plagiarised by another university) (213). Howard wryly notes the difficulty teachers have in defining plagiarism, while actively engaging in ongoing punishment of the activity (473). Sutherland-Smith and Saltmarsh note the multitude of punitive ways academic institutions attempt to deter plagiarism (2), often with little real effect (6). This becomes a fruitless effort since, by spending hours uncovering and punishing plagiarism in the name of academic integrity, by dividing students into a false binary of plagiarisers and non-plagiarisers (Zwagerman 681), the time spent on academic education is reduced (679).

Language is significant: we do not have a word for those who conform to the ethical dictates imposed on them, but rather identify those who do not comply as “non-plagiarisers”. Plagiarism, while viewed as a “crime” is not generally subject to legal sanctions (Green 241), but is punished through numerous social codes created and enforced, primarily, by professional and academic bodies (199). Plagiarism may, however, still be a rational choice when the punishments are balanced against the benefits to the plagiariser, such that Woessner strikingly demonstrates the disciplinary nature of plagiarism by claiming nothing but “the most aggressive plagiarism sanctions” can ever prevent plagiarism (313). De Ortego y Gasca describes plagiarism as a “modern ‘deadly sin’”, indicating its culturally situated culpability (35), and Valentine reports plagiarism is seen as a form of immorality (91).

The reasons people engage in plagiarism are diverse. Martin observes that those who plagiarise are often at least as capable as those from whom they plagiarise, so an economic imperative is highly unlikely (42). Cowan argues that the overriding ethical imperative is the implicit contract between a writer and a reader (156). The problem here, of course, is that an implicit contract is, ipso facto, not explicitly defined. Only an ill-defined set of expectations and boundaries exists, and transgressions are usually only defined and condemned on a case by case basis.

Ashworth, Bannister and Thorne argue that much research into student plagiarism has been hampered by failing to examine the views of students on the nature(s) of cheating, assuming that these echo how plagiarism is seen by academics (188). Their findings are based on only nineteen interviews but offer various reasons for plagiarism, including lack of understanding, time pressures, that published authors indulge in the practice, and “life is competitive” (194-95). They comment that students simply do not view plagiarism as such an important concept as their tutors, and have a lack of understanding of it (201). Russikof, Fucaloro and Salkauskiene, with a much larger sample size, also found students plagiarised for such mundane reasons as saving time and that it is easier (113), which are broadly similar to those noted by DeVoss and Rosati (195). Zwagerman comments that plagiarism is also a form of resistance that students can employ against the dominant surveillance and assumed guilt that monitoring can impose (696), and rewards the more efficient cheaters who are successful enough not to get discovered (698), again linking to the disciplinary basis of plagiarism.

This disciplinary nature of academic plagiarism can be illustrated by two case studies. While reactions to plagiarism vary from case to case, and it is difficult to make direct comparisons between specific cases, that of Ian McEwan in a non-academic work, and the reaction to it, contrasts strongly with a case of academic plagiarism at RMIT.

Novelist Ian McEwan was accused of plagiarising passages in his novel Atonement. An issue of Critical Quarterly devoted itself to this matter, not to attack but to defend McEwan. While McCrum noted accusations of plagiarism against McEwan dated back to his first novel, he claimed that the most serious crime McEwan could be accused of was only negligence, that it was simply “homage”. McEwan justifies himself by stating he “drew on the scenes she (Lucilla Andrews) described” as a form of inspiration, and that he acknowledged her as a source in the novel. Yet, as Roberts demonstrates through quotations from both authors’ works, McEwan’s book does indeed contain writing that would probably qualify, in an academic context, as plagiarism, and his credit to Andrews is in the ”smallprint of his acknowledgements”. Critical Quarterly also published a response from McEwan’s publisher, Random House, quoting nine major authors supporting McEwan. Their arguments range from varying definitions of plagiarism, to arguing that all writers do the same, or that it is just “factual research”. None of the arguments (including McEwan’s) effectively deny plagiarism, but frame it as a justifiable practice for novelists.

In case this might be seen as censure after the fact, more recently Helene Hegemann was not only accused of plagiarism, but considered for a prestigious literary prize despite this (Kulish 1). One of the judges described the book as not “completely clean” but dismissed this as a concern, while the author claimed “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity” (2). After the accusations, sales of the novel increased. In the literary world, claims of plagiarism may be a cause célèbre for a time, but they appear to have no long-lasting damage, and are subject to vigorous defence.

In contrast to this, a case of plagiarism at RMIT (and exam fraud) demonstrates the much more strongly coded disciplinary nature of how these actions are handled within academia. Zobel, while ostensibly dispassionately describing how the plagiarism was discovered and handled, nonetheless uses strongly charged words such as “high stakes”, “cheating” and “policing”. The case involved an external tutor who offered to write assignments for students for a fee, and to sit exams posing as them. Rather than the informal arguments regarding literary plagiarism in the previous example, students suspected of plagiarism were “invited to hearings” (Zobel 3). After zealously trawling through university email logs, previous student assignments, and 5,000 exam papers, some students were “charged”. Zobel comments that some students were thought so “menacing” at these hearings that calling security personnel had been considered (4). As a result of these investigations, four students were expelled (5). Again, in contrast to the previous case study, the media and public reaction to this incident was strongly negative and condemnatory of the university and students (8). It should not go without mention that Zobel describes himself as “discipline coordinator” – a truly ambiguous description in this context, but a revealing one (3).

The point of these case studies is not to claim one approach is right or wrong, but to delineate the vastly differing ways cases of plagiarism are approached and, especially, the specifically disciplinary academic handling of it, with its legalistic terms and Inquisitorial-like investigations, and where every word is subject to the panoptic gaze of machines through services such as Turnitin.com (Green 194-95), as well as the differing “punishments” meted out in each case.

It is clear that “plagiarism” is a catchall term that covers a vast territory of different interpretations and meanings, temporally, geographically, and culturally (Bergmann 130). In its development in the West as part of Modernism, plagiarism had an economic origin based on capitalist notions of ownership, extending into aspects of reputation and authenticity, but its implementation was primarily disciplinary, framing plagiarism as a transgressive crime to be punished, rather than for economic reasons or claims such as credibility or authenticity – all of which are part of the concept but not the primary explanations. This remains the situation, particularly in academic environments, even while the Enlightenment/Modernist narrative of plagiarism now seems seriously under threat and outmoded by a Postmodernist resumption of a situation echoing the pre-Enlightenment model.

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