Two Cheers for Plagiarism

Russ Hunt
Saint Thomas University

[NOTE: this has been substantially revised and shortened since it was delivered at the Colby, Bates & Bowdoin Information Ethics & Academic Honesty Conference, Colby College, 15 October 2003 ]

In discussions of the subject of plagiarism and academic integrity I often find myself making things difficult. (Why settle for being difficult, my father used to say, when with a little effort you could be impossible?) Let me give it my best shot; I'll begin by drawing attention to my title. You may have noticed that it's plagiarized.

When I decided to adapt the title of E. M. Forster's book of essays, Two Cheers for Democracy, it occurred to me that it could be seen in either of two ways. One is the way I first intended it, as a sort of arch allusion, one that invited folks who recognized it in on a little joke, where we shared our amusement at my adaptation into this new situation of Forster's way of capturing his measured and hesitant enthusiasm. The other way to see it is as an attempt to pass that cleverness off as my own, to take Forster's neat tilting of a cliché and offer it as though I were the clever one. As plagiarism, in fact. (Actually, of course, there are at least two other ways to take it: one is not to recognize it as an allusion because you'd never heard of Forster's book, and the other is to assume that I had never heard of Forster's book, and that I was being clever, but unfortunately fifty years too late.)

And of course there's even another way in which I might be a plagiarist, here: the very idea of adapting Forster's phrase to other purposes is not a new one with me. Perhaps I stole it from one of the half dozen other titles in our university library starting with the same three words (and continuing with anything from "capitalism" and "secularism" to "Canadian monetary policy"). Did I? I honestly don't have any idea.

The first question I want to raise, then, has to do with our assumption that plagiarism is a pretty clear category, one whose essence is captured in the kind of no-nonsense definitions we see in university publications and Web pages designed to put the fear of God, or the registrar, into undergraduates. These definitions are often versions of the OED's: "the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another." I want to suggest that this is a far more complex concept than that sentence allows for, and that it isn't complicated merely because of all the reasons we already agree on -- for example, what constitutes "ownership" of "an idea" (or even more dauntingly, "the expression" of an idea), or what constitutes "appropriation" or "purloining," -- or even what "as one's own" means . . . I could, obviously, go on. But as it happens I want to go somewhere else.

Whether you're likely to have seen my title, or any replication of a phrase or an idea you've seen elsewhere, as plagiarism or not, is almost entirely a matter of the social relationship between me and you, between writer and reader. I actually doubt pretty seriously whether it would ever occur to anyone to think that I was plagiarizing: anyone who recognized the allusion would know it for such, mainly because you know what context the title occurs in -- a public venue, by an English professor, one who's writing for an audience he expects to be engaged, knowledgeable, skeptical. The language event is what Thomas Harris (remember I'm OK, You're OK?) used to call an adult-adult one: we're equals, roughly.

But suppose a first year student did it? How many teachers -- of those who, in that case, took the text seriously enough to recognize the phrase -- would think that first year student likely to use a casual allusion in that way? Is it so unlikely that we might conclude that the student didn't know how recognizable the phrase was, ran across it in her history class, and decided to appropriate it to her own use, to offer it, in the OED's phrase "as one's own"?

Of course, anywhere but in a classroom, this would hardly matter. But the social situation in which class-based writing is written and read is a radically peculiar one, and the relationship between reader and writer, normally, is what Harris would have called Child-Parent. One of us has all the power, the other has none; one of us has virtually all the knowledge, the other is presumed to have far less; one of us knows a lot about the social situation we're in, the other doesn't. Or, maybe I should back off on that last one: my experience is that in academia almost no one reflects much on the social situation around student writing.

I could pursue that line of argument for some distance, too, but as always, I have a limited allotment of time and space here. What I'd like to do is bite right into the bullet, and question the shared assumptions that bring us together in discourses and at conferences.

We assume in the title of the conferences we hold on this issue -- for instance, "Information Ethics & Academic Honesty" -- that whatever this really is, at bottom it's primarily a moral matter, a question of ethics. The language we use in talking about this issue (in my experience, 90% of the time) , assumes that plagiarism is cheating; that plagiarism and cheating are crimes, and should be punished, in part for the deterrent effect; that the most humane method of prevention is education as to what the crime consists of and how to avoid it and the less humane method is draconian warnings and "honor codes" to be signed (almost never in blood) at enrollment and weighted with horrific punishments. The following was posted to a teaching and curriculum list in response to a question about what people do at various institutions to tell first year students about the dangers of plagiarism: "At ____ College, academic dishonesty is addressed the first day the freshmen arrive. We have a huge honor convocation in which we speak to academic honesty. The faculty dress in their garbs and several speaches are made. The students then sign their contracts to uphold the honor code. During one of the first freshman seminar meetings an honor simulation is conducted in which the peer advisors act out an or violation hearing. Discussion follows."


My response to this, then and now, is to ask whether the focus on not plagiarizing (making it the subject of so powerful a ritual) doesn't redouble the focus on a model of education and learning that's really about testing and challenging rather than learning and creating? My own intellectual and professional life is full of plagiarism. What I'm saying right now isn't "mine," exactly; I've been stealing ideas about ownership of ideas from colleagues and friends for years, and if I acknowledge something -- like Karen Burke LeFevre, who wrote a book called Invention as a Social Act -- it's not because I have to pay Karen obeisance or protect myself from charges that I really stole the idea that writing, at its root and beginning, is social, or avoid somehow depriving Karen of something. It's because I want to parade the fact that I know her work, and tell others about it. Her effect on what I say and think is there even when I don't acknowledge her. So how is it that we think our students have to accept a bizarrely high standard of conscious acknowledgment that nobody else accepts? Because we're only thinking of them as demonstrating what they know, rather than telling us something we need to hear. Oh, yes, I know that this issue is really all about their copying from published sources and passing it off as their own work . . . but I think all of it is very much a consequence of a situation in which we make that kind of thing possible and even unavoidable, by asking questions which we know, and they know, have already been answered, better, by others.

I also wonder whether making "dishonesty" a central focus of a student's life is likely to make her more aware of the possibility, and even the attractions, of it . . . and, maybe even equally important, of the potential for scandalizing the establishment? If I took-- signed! -- "an oath" not to smoke, or engage in premarital sex, or shoplift, as part of my first week at university, guess what I'd be thinking about a few months later while I was having my nose pierced?

And finally, I wonder: doesn't asking students to focus first on the ownership of ideas and texts instantiate a profoundly static, accumulative, building-block notion of what knowledge is, and one that supports a sort of neo-capitalist notion of scholarship? I remember with extreme clarity a meeting with a professor when I was a Ph. D. student, in which I asked him for help with a specific historical question, and he responded by saying that he wouldn't tell me what he knew, because he had an article in progress (maybe it was out for review, maybe it was only in draft, I don't remember) on the subject and thought that he owned the idea and wouldn't let someone else have it. That was over thirty years ago, and I still remember how appalled I was.

In sum, I guess I'm wondering what the consequences are of inculcating first year students with a healthy respect for (or fear of?) the consequences of "academic dishonesty," or, in the words of the description of one conference on academic integrity, "discouraging the occurrence of plagiarism among undergraduates."

There's another reason I'm hesitant about making the issue of integrity central here. Our thoughtless equation of plagiarism with cheating and dishonesty puts all of us in a position that's not very useful. I think we need to make, and hold to, a firm distinction -- one the media never makes, and academia almost never -- between "cheating" and "plagiarism." When we talk about these phenomena, the two terms tend to be conflated, and discussions of "plagiarism" often include, or merge into, lamentations about the increasing frequency of clever forms of cheating -- pagers in the exam room, answers in the lining of ball caps or recorded in the cassettes or CDs playing in the Walkman.

This, however, is not plagiarism. In general, these are ways of extending the technology of memory. Is it a great deal different to memorize a few hundred lines than it is to write them in your hat, or burn them onto a CD? Memorizing wouldn't be called cheating, of course, but perhaps it should be. And it's important to bear in mind that what's memorized probably will last a shorter time than the CD -- or even, maybe, the notes in the hat.

It's pretty difficult, after all, to plagiarize on an examination. Two conditions have to be met: you have to know in advance what the question will be and you have to have a source for a text that will answer the question, and record that on your CD or get it into your hat lining. This might happen, of course, and would technically be plagiarism. But, as the false Queen used to sneer in Jim Henson's Frog Prince, "It doesn't seem so likely, though, does it?"

It's important, then, to recognize not only that not all cheating is plagiarism. It's even more important to see that only an extremely small proportion of the plagiarism that actually occurs is cheating. The more common forms of plagiarism -- almost exclusively, in the production of term papers, research essays, etc. -- are mostly matters of ignorance rather than the deliberate, "let's buy this term paper" dishonesty that we see reported in the newspapers.

In the world beyond the campus, as James Kincaid pointed out five years ago in a brilliant New Yorker piece about this phenomenon, it's pretty rare for this to happen -- or, more accurately, it's pretty rare for anyone to call it plagiarism. In most cases, as Kincaid says, it's a perfectly normal way of proceeding. Newspaper writers and editors "boilerplate in" paragraphs lifted from the AP or Reuters wire and produce stories which are pastiches of other stories; repeat explanatory paragraphs for the sixth time (how many ways, after all, are there to remind the reader what happened on September 11, 2001, or December 7, 1941, and why would we ask a reporter to come up with a new one?) and so forth. And in cases where writing isn't published (as, after all, most isn't), one might guess that 80% of what gets put down in businesses and bureaucracies is copied in from elsewhere.

Further, and more important, the bizarre modern (and, it's arguable, narrowly Western) emphasis on "originality" in utterances runs counter to most language practice. It's not only Bakhtin who's pointed out that most of what we say is put together from scraps and rags of other people's utterances. This is perhaps the most radical part of the argument against the hysteria over plagiarism. It's easy to say that "everybody knows" what plagiarism is; unfortunately, there's lots of evidence to suggest some pretty deep-seated confusion, among scholars, faculty, administrations, and students, about what's happening when people engage in the interchange and exchange of ideas that is the lifeblood of academia.

Here's a diagram which I offer as a way of thinking about the situation of discourse and the distinctions among "cheating," "plagiarism," and ordinary discourse.


I've offered there some illustrative examples of each -- except what I've called "normal discourse," since I assume in that case everyone can supply her own. The crucial point here is that the categories overlap: there are times when plagiarism is clearly cheating on the same order as copying answers on a test. The typical occurrence is the purchased term paper -- or, in the "good old days," the one retrieved from the frat house files. Similarly, there are times when plagiarism and normal discourse overlap -- the usual classroom lecture or textbook chapter, for instance, is full of ideas and phrases which owe their origins to others -- and which, were they in a student paper, we'd probably insist be "acknowledged" or "documented" or "cited" -- but which, here, we take it for granted are more like the usual discourse all of us engage in and so don't need to follow some abstract rule of attribution.

Typically -- indeed, almost universally -- the plagiarism which is the subject of ominous and threatening pronouncements in university calendars happens when the student turns in an "essay," a "research paper," a "term paper" -- and we find in it those telltale rhetorical moves that signal, "this writing was not produced by an undergraduate doing an assignment."

Anyone will be able to call to mind instances where teachers have triumphantly -- and, of course, with profound regret -- caught the plagiarist with her hand in the cookie jar . . . but where the student seemed to have thought the cookie jar was a serving plate.

One I remember was raised on C18-L a list for scholars of the eighteenth century, in the spring of 2000. The writer said, with some amazement, that she had a student who had "plagiarized from the textbook I had assigned to the class (the Norton Anthology of American Lit.)." It seems to me utterly inconceivable that this student's notion of what she was doing had anything to do with anything we might call "plagiarism." This, I thought, is someone who, after dinner, stands up and gathers up the silverware and puts it in her pocket as though it were hers. This is someone who doesn't know about ownership. This is someone from another culture.

This is made even clearer in what the writer had to say about it:

my student . . . showed absolutely no remorse. When I told her I knew she had plagiarized every word she turned in as her own, she (an Ed major, graduating senior) said, matter-of-factly, "I know: I knew you expected a good paper, and I didn't have time to write one." (Barton, 2000)
What that student was doing was providing "a good paper." The whole question of "ownership of text" -- and especially the subtle business of the text allowing the reader to infer things about the writer's knowledge and understanding and ability to formulate and reformulate ideas -- is foreign to her. What's the difference between that student and the reporter adapting a paragraph or two from the AP wire, or the social worker boilerplating a case report, or the lawyer cobbling together a set of precedents?

The difference is where the reader's focus is. As a reader, a teacher isn't using that document in what we might call an instrumental way She's not reading it to be informed about the background of the current report of a soldier killed in Iraq, or to make a decision about whether a welfare mom is going to get more support, or for deciding on the merit of a lawsuit. She's reading it entirely for evidence about the writer -- about her state of knowledge of the subject and about her skill as a writer. And however elaborately we construct simulations or pretexts, that's the sole function of that text, and deep in their lizard brains both the writer and the reader know it.

Further, we tend to assume, because we're so firmly and deeply enculturated in the assumptions of academe, that producing text is pretty much invariably about demonstrating our expertise. But we need to remember -- and we hardly ever do -- that almost no one else in the world has such a view of text. The overwhelming majority of the non-fictional texts our students will have read consist of transplanted (with or without modification) chunks of language from other sources. The authors aren't in a position where the main point of the text is to demonstrate their own expertise; the point is to generate a text that gets done what needs to get done. You want a "good paper" on Faulkner? Here's one.

It seems to me that this fundamental miscommunication is pretty central to our mission as teachers. These days I spend much of my time as a teacher working on helping students understand how text works, when texts "belong" to someone and when they don't, what the point of using sources is, and how to weave someone else's language into your own voice. I spent two or three decades as a teacher ignoring this, though. I think that very often what I was actually doing -- what our profession is regularly doing -- was to punish people for not knowing what it's our job to help them learn.

This is a central characteristic of what might be termed the institutional writing environment (the "research paper," the "literary essay," the "term paper"). Our reliance on these forms as ways of assessing student skills and knowledge has been increasingly questioned by people who are concerned with how learning and assessment take place, and can be fostered, and particularly with how the ability to manipulate written language ("literacy") is developed. The assumption that a student's learning is accurately and readily tested by her ability to produce, in a completely arhetorical situation, an artificial form that she'll never have to write again once she's survived formal education (the essay examination, the formal research paper), is questionable on the face of it, and is increasingly untenable. If the apprehension that it's almost impossible to escape the mass-produced and purchased term paper leads teachers to create more imaginative, and rhetorically sound, writing situations in their classes, the advent of the easily-purchased paper from is a salutary challenge to practices which ought to be challenged.

This is hardly a new point, of course. Many people have argued that what we need are "better assignments." One good, clear example of the argument which can be mounted against generic term paper assignments and in favor of assignments which track that writing process and / or are specific to a particular situation is in Tom Rocklin's online "Downloadable Term Papers: What's a Prof. to Do?" Many other equivalent arguments that assignment can be refigured to make plagiarism more difficult -- and offer more authentic rhetorical contexts for student writing -- have been offered in recent years. But the usual suggestions don't in fact change the actual underlying rhetorical situation. I'm unconvinced that we can address this problem by assuring students that "they are real writers with meaningful and important things to say," or invite them to revise their work where we can see the revisions.  We still haven't changed that situation, and thus we continue giving them what are understandable as decontextualized, audienceless and purposeless writing exercises. Having something to say is -- for anybody except, maybe, a Romantic poet -- absolutely indistinguishable from having someone to say it to, and an authentic reason for saying it. To address this problem, I believe, we need to rethink the position of writing in student's lives and in the curriculum. One strong pressure to do that is the increasing likelihood that empty exercises can by fulfilled by perfunctory efforts, or borrowed texts.

One reason for the durability of this situation, of course, lies in the institutional structures around grades and certification. University itself, as our profession has structured it, is the most effective possible situation for encouraging the taking of shortcuts to production of texts that serve the immediate purpose (the purpose being to get a grade and certification). If I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, or improve my golf swing, or write HTML, such shortcuts would be the last thing that would ever occur to me. They would be utterly irrelevant to the situation. On the other hand, if what I wanted were a certificate saying that I could pick a jig, play a round in under 80, or produce a slick Web page (and never expected actually to perform the activity in question), I might well consider pasting in an already existing text (and consider it primarily a moral problem). This is the situation we've built for our students: a system in which the only incentives or motives anyone cares about are marks, credits, and certificates. We're not entirely responsible for that -- government policies which have tilted financial responsibility for education increasingly toward the students and their families have helped a lot.  But the crucial factor has been our insistence, as a profession, that the only motivation we could ever count on is what is built into the certification process. When students say -- as they regularly do -- "why should I do this if it's not marked?" or "why should I do this well if it's not graded?" or even "I understand that I should do this, but you're not marking it, and my other professors are marking what I do for them," they're saying exactly what educational institutions have been highly successful at teaching them to say.

They're learning exactly the same thing, with a different spin, when we tell them -- by asking them to sign academic integrity pledges -- that plagiarism is a moral issue. We're saying that the only reason you might choose not to do it is a moral one. But think about it: if you wanted to build a deck and were taking a class to learn how to do it, your decision not to cheat would not be based on moral considerations.

There's an even more important issue here, though and it has to do with the model of knowledge held by almost all students, and by many faculty. We tacitly assume that knowledge is stored information and that skills are isolated, asocial faculties. When we judge essays by what they "contain" and how logically it's organized (and how grammatically it's presented) we miss the most important fact about written texts -- which is that they are rhetorical moves in scholarly and social enterprises. In recent years there have been periodic assaults on what Paolo Freire (1974) called "the banking model" of education (and what, more recently, Tom Marino [2002], writing on the POD list, referred to as "educational bulimics"). Partisans of active learning, of problem- and project-based learning, of cooperative learning, and of many other "radical" educational initiatives, all tell us that information and ideas are not inert masses to be shifted and copied in much the way two computers exchange packages of information, but rather need to be continuously reformatted, reconstituted, restructured, and exchanged in new forms, not only as learning processes but as the social basis of the intellectual enterprise. A model of the educational enterprise which presumes that knowledge comes in packages (one reinforced by marking systems which say you can get "73%" of Renaissance literature or introductory organic chemistry) invites learners to import pre-packaged nuggets of information into their texts -- and their minds.

Similarly, a model which assumes that a skill like "writing the academic essay" can be demonstrated on demand, quite apart from any authentic rhetorical situation, actual question, or expectation of effect, virtually prohibits students from recognizing that all writing is shaped by rhetorical context and situation, and thus renders them tone-deaf to the shifts in register and diction which make so much transplanted undergraduate text instantly recognizable. (The best documentation of the strangely arhetorical situation in which student writing lives is in the work done as part of the extensive study of school-based and workplace writing by Dias, Freedman, Paré and Medway and their team at McGill and Carleton Universities, reported in Worlds Apart and Transitions).

The good news, I believe, is that by facing the challenge of this situation we might be forced to help our students learn what I believe to be the most important thing they can learn at university. That is just how the intellectual enterprise of scholarship and research really works. Traditionally, when we explain to students why plagiarism is bad and what their motives should be for properly citing and crediting their sources, we present our arguments in terms of a model of how texts work in the process of sharing ideas and information which is profoundly different from how they actually work outside of classroom-based writing. It's one that is profoundly destructive to their understanding of the assumptions and methods of scholarship. Scholars -- writers generally -- use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their allegiances, they bring the work of others to the attention of their readers, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against allegations of plagiarism.

The clearest difference between the way undergraduate students, writing essays, cite and quote and the way scholars and others do it in public may be stated this way: typically, the scholars are achieving something positive with real readers; the students are avoiding something negative with fake ones.

It seems clear the conclusion we're driven to is this: instituting "honour codes" and inviting students to sit on Honour Councils, offering lessons and courses and workshops on "avoiding plagiarism" -- indeed, posing plagiarism as a problem at all -- begins at the wrong end of the stick. It might usefully be analogized to looking for a good way to teach the infield fly rule to people who have no clear idea what baseball is. What we need to do is get a game up.

It's often argued that people need "practice" and that that's what school provides. Batting practice, fielder's choice practice, bunting and pitching and baserunning practice -- and that school, by definition, can't provide a real game. So school writing is always and invariably stuck in the rhetorical situation I've been describing. We should, then, be happy to provide the mere practice the potential players need before the play in a real game begins.

But I think something important is lost here. All those folks working away at spring training know what playing baseball is. All the kids hanging round the sandlot with the fielding coach know what it is to win, to lose, to drop a grounder in a late inning with two on and two out.

Coming back to the classroom, I would argue that our students (mine, at least) have never set foot on the field. And I think there are lots of ways to get them out there and give them the experience that will put them in a position to understand what it's like to write for a real audience, and to want to offer that audience the fruits of their research. But we won't discover them until we agree that they're radically necessary in order for students to learn how written language can work for them. Academic ethics is the least of it.


Barton, Carol.  "Re: plagiarism policies," 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion <C18-L@LISTS.PSU.EDU>, 24 May 2000. [ ]

Dias, Patrick, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Paré, eds. Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts [The Rhetoric, Society and Knowledge Series]. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.

Dias, Patrick, and Anthony Paré, eds. Transitions: Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2000.

Forster, E. M.  Two Cheers for Democracy. London, E. Arnold, 1951.

Harris, Thomas Anthony. I'm OK, you're OK. New York: Avon, 1969.

Kincaid, James R. "Purloined letters." The New Yorker 72:43 (20 January 1997): 93 ff. [Available on line, on Ted Nellen's "Cyber English" Web site, at ]

Le Fevre, Karen Burke. Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

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