Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Literary hypocrites and the plagiarism business

I enrolled to an advanced essay writing course. About 30 percent of it dealt with plagiarism. So I read articles after articles on it, and I got the impression of watching a debate in a kindergarten. "He pulled my hair." "No, she started it, she called me a sissy." Finally I turned in my essay with (hopefully) proper citations.

J. D. Salinger used to be my hero, although my favorite was his less popular Franny and Zooey. When a Swedish writer wanted to publish a post-modern paraphrase, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, Salinger sued him (Sulzberger). A similar narrow-minded attitude prevails in academy where the greedy business exploits the good intention of honest academics. Fighting literary plagiarism in the US now is mostly about money.

There are many examples of how being plagiarized have a similar effect on different kinds of people. Gladwell tells the story of Dorothy Lewis, a criminal psychiatrist. Her friends told her about a new Broadway play she should see. She grabbed a copy of the play, started to read it, and noticed some strange coincidences. She began to underline some lines, and the whole story became more and more suspicious, there were too many similarities between the script and her own life. She felt "robbed and violated in a peculiar way, [...] it was as if someone had stolen [her] essence.” (Gladwell pp 223-224)Weinberg, the computer scientist tells a story when a consultant published a chapter from his book and even argued that Weinberg had stolen his article. Weinberg showed evidence to the consultancy's attorneys who paid a nice penalty without any question. But "the penalty didn't begin to make up for [his] feeling of being violated" Weinberg; he had no idea what rape felt like, but he felt raped.

Plagiarism affects both the author, and the audience. Above all, being plagiarized is an emotional shock for the author. Some authors, like the afore-mentioned Gladwell and Weinberg, find it quite distressing. It is as shameful as being violated, this may be the reason why many authors do not mention this aspect. Its other effect is that it robs the reader of being able to follow a reference. We research a topic by reading some seminal articles on it, then following the articles referenced by them. If an article or an author is referenced by many others, it is a sign of importance. This is the basis of how academic work is evaluated based on its impact factor. Finally, it can have financial and professional consequences for the author too. It is awkward to get into a debate of who the original author of a paper is. A publication brings professional reputation and occasionally a fee, so copying a paper means lost profit for the original author.

To get over being plagiarized is a complex emotional process which has multiple stages. It is hard to process being raped even in an intellectual sense. It involves different stages and emotions, including the urge to take revenge on the perpetrator. "If it hurts to me, it should hurt to him even more", this is the thinking behind. A substitute for revenge is compensation, it is getting something in return to compensate the pain. Parents use this tactic with children too; they buy an ice-cream to the child when his puppy just passed away. Since the compensation addresses only one stage of the emotional process, it is not very effective, but it seems to be working in the heat of the moment.

The methods people use to fight plagiarism don't address the problem. First of all, there is an increase in the number of plagiarism at colleges. Roberts explains "10 percent of students surveyed in 1999 admitted [copying] without properly crediting the source. By 2005, the percentage was almost 40 percent." In spite of all the efforts to educate students about it, "the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes 'serious cheating' is declining" from 34 percent to 29 percent in a decade (Gabriel). Besides, many who fight plagiarism use a strategy of deterrence. The main message students learn is how severe consequences copying can have. According to iParadigms, the company behind Turnitin, consequences include destroyed reputation as a student and as a professional; and legal and monetary repercussions. This message does not foster empathy with the authors and the readers. Finally, educators over-emphasize the moral aspect of plagiarism. Fish refers to it as a "learned sin", Gabriel calls it a "serious misdeed". This makes it more difficult for students to understand the situation rationally. However, plagiarism is essentially not a moral issue, it is "a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe" (Fish); making it look so only fans the flame.

Fighting plagiarism is a good business. There are many fields where business outgrows and exploits the original need it wanted to fulfill. It is a common tactic to artificially generate and inflate a business need. Poulter claims some mineral water producers disparage tap water, then they turn out to sell bottled tap water themselves. Lawyers are no exception, they have to ensure they are needed, especially in a country that has the most lawyers per capita in the world. Divorce lawyers have a smart tactic, they ask their clients to make an exhaustive list of their belongings and walk it through with their spouse checking each item. This is a good way to ensure a long and painful process with less chance of a mutual agreement and more legal fees. The most well-known software company in the plagiarism business, iParadigms has grown quite powerful. They are behind Turnitin, most colleges use; they are behind plagiarism.org, the site that pretends to be a neutral NGO. Students are supposed to check their papers before handing them in, but one document costs almost 8 USD, "so much, that the ordinary student can’t afford [...] it." (Scan My Essay). There are free alternatives, but colleges don't accept them officially.

There is no easy way out of the current situation. Business has overruled the field. But it is time now to forget about inflated morality and address the real problems. It is time now to deal with the authors and the readers.


Fish, Stanley “Plagiarism is not a big moral deal.” Opinionator (2010). 23 Oct. 2016 <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/plagiarism-is-not-a-big-moral-deal/>.
Gabriel, Trip “Lines on plagiarism blur for students in the digital age.” Education (2010). 23 Oct. 2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/education/02cheat.html>.
Gladwell, Malcolm What the dog saw: And other adventures. Little, Brown, 2009.
Poulter, Sean “Tap water straight from the mains sold on shelves at asda and tesco.” Daily Mail (2012). 24 Oct. 2016 <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2190027/Asda-Tesco-selling-tap-water-bottled-water-confusing-customers.html>.
Roberts, Joel “Technology sniffs out student plagiarism.” 17 Mar. 2007. 23 Oct. 2016 <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/technology-sniffs-out-student-plagiarism/>.

Scan My Essay “FREE turnitin alternative - a real alternative to turnitin.” 2016. 23 Oct. 2016 <http://www.scanmyessay.com/turnitin.php>.
Sulzberger, A. G. “J. d. salinger’s suit over ’the catcher in the rye’ sequel goes to court.” Books (2014). 24 Oct. 2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/17/books/17salinger.html>.
Turnitin “6 consequences of plagiarism.” 1998. 23 Oct. 2016 <http://www.ithenticate.com/resources/6-consequences-of-plagiarism>.
Weinberg, Gerald M. Weinberg on writing: The fieldstone method. Dorset House, 2005.

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