The Social Life of Texts:
Classroom and Academic Genres and Purloined Passages
[text of an invited presentation for the "International Students, Academic Writing and Plagiarism Conference" at Lancaster University, 5-7th September 2007. Unpublished and under revision; please cite or quote only with permission.]
A few weeks ago, I got an email from our university's institutional research officer saying that he'd just discovered that a newspaper in Halifax had referenced a course of mine. In an article about an upcoming production of a play, the paper had given a short summary of the play's origins, and -- unusually for a newspaper article -- the reporter had credited her source.
What she cited was a document created by a class I teach, a second year course then called "From the Page to the Stage." Among other things, that course involves small groups of students preparing what we call "playgoer's guides" to plays being produced in our area, which are printed and distributed by the theatres at performances. In 2001 one of the scripts we had worked with was a new Canadian play called The Drawer Boy. That particular playgoer's guide had included this paragraph:
The "roots" of The Drawer Boy lie in an historic chapter of Canadian theatre history. In 1972, a group of young, Toronto based actors, working with Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille embarked on a project which involved the study of an Ontario farming community. Actors lived with farm families in the community of Clinton, Ontario, laboured on these farms and collected stories from the people they encountered. The stories were developed into a collective theatrical production called The Farm Show, which opened in Toronto and later toured parts of Canada. Both Miles Potter and David Fox, who were the director and an actor in the original multi-award winning production at Theatre Passe Muraille, helped create and appeared in the original production of The Farm Show.The newspaper identified its source by continuing, after reproducing all of that text except the first sentence, with this phrase: "according to www.stthomasu.ca, a guide to the play produced by a group at St. Thomas University in Fredericton." I was interested in a number of aspects of this, of course. I knew immediately why the reporter had found that group's text on my Web site. She'd Googled it. For reasons I don't understand my site is high on Google's search algorithm. If you search on the phrase "The Drawer Boy," the first hit you get is that playgoer's guide, and the second is my review of that production (or at least that was the case the morning of that email; Google is a notoriously unfaithful consort).
But I was very curious about the status of the paragraph itself. The reporter obviously considered it to be our "property"; but I was pretty sure the situation was more complicated than that. In the course we think of what we're doing as more like journalism than scholarship. We're writing for people sitting idly in theatre seats waiting for the lights to go down, not for suspicious professors or scholarly readers. So we don't do much citation. I was sure at the time that that paragraph must have been boilerplated in from some external source and possibly adapted to its context. It was, I thought, unlikely that any of the group of students creating that playgoer's guide had actually composed it.
So I did what anyone curious about a piece of text these days would do: I Googled it. The paragraph, as I suspected, had a life well beyond my student's text and the reproduction of it in the newspaper. Places where it or substantial chunks of it occurred included a "study guide" produced by the Globe Theatre in Regina for their spring 2001 production (about the same time as the Fredericton production we were working with), a background Web site produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey for a production in their 2004-5 season, and many others. Using other phrases as search terms I've found versions of it on theatre company Web sites from Ithaca, New York, to Eugene, Oregon, from Kanata, Ontario to the Tennessee Repertory.
I'm not yet sure where my students found it, or whether indeed they did find it somewhere. I asked a colleague at a university that subscribes to turnitin.com to run our playgoer's guide through it. It reported, of course, that the text had been 100% plagiarized from the original playgoer's guide. Beyond that, I was surprised to discover that no "sources" that weren't already on the public Internet were identified. But I discovered that another element of the guide, a bulleted list of facts about the play's author, appeared word for word (but without the bullets) in a study guide produced two years later by the Sudbury theatre. Most interestingly, the guide included a copyright notice at the top. I don't know that the list was original with us, but I do know for sure it wasn't original with Sudbury.
Running down the truth of the matter or establishing "ownership" of the text isn't my point here, however. I want to consider how those variations of that text, occurring in so many contexts, got there, and what the people who put them there might have imagined themselves doing. Whatever that was, it wasn't cheating, and it wasn't thought of as plagiarism by anyone concerned. It was the assembling of useful texts -- just as it had been for my students.
Except, perhaps, for the Chronicle reporter.
Because, interestingly, the situation in which that sort of writing lives may well be changing around us. A decade or so ago, James Kincaid wrote a wonderfully challenging little piece in The New Yorker about plagiarism, in which he made the point that there are lots of kinds of text which no one would ever consider plagiarized, though they appear, like our little paragraph on The Drawer Boy, over and over. Kincaid invited us to distinguish between literary plagiarism and journalistic plagiarism, remarking that "a kind of workaday swapping of stories is common among reporters and correspondents -- a swapping that sometimes extends to the way stories are structured, the major points of emphasis, key phrases, even sentences."
"What's clear," he concluded, "is that not all plagiarisms are the same, nor is originality a simple concept." A couple of years later, Rebecca Moore Howard nailed that point down for scholars with her Standing in the Shadow of Giants. But if that was pretty much accepted wisdom a decade ago, the various plagiarism scandals that journalism and other professions have encountered since -- not to mention the quantum leap computers have made in enabling us to track text -- have complicated matters a great deal. I wrote the journalist who had used our paragraph, being careful not to let the dire word "plagiarism" slip, but focusing on how she'd found the paragraph, and why she'd attributed it to us. Her response is telling:
Because of all the recent plagiarism scandals in journalism, we are very conscious of proper attribution and have even had an in-house training session on the need for proper attribution, so I included the web address (I think I included the whole address but it appears to have got cut out of the final text) and the fact, the guide to the play was produced by a group at St. Thomas University in Fredericton (to put everyone's name in would have taken up too much room unfortunately).What I found particularly intriguing here was that the attribution as it appeared in the paper really amounted to little more than an empty gesture, however sincerely meant. A reader wouldn't be able to tell what sort of text it was that was being cited, or who wrote it, or how to find it, and couldn't know whether it was quoted or paraphrased. In a scholarly journal, of course, all that would have had to be made clear, following some set of documentation rules -- American Psychological Association, the Modern Language Association, the Chicago Manual of Style.
In the event, though, she was stuck with the odd attributional phrase "according to www.stthomasu.ca, a guide to the play produced by a group at St. Thomas University." The St. Thomas Web site was not, of course, a "guide," and in fact its URL would not have helped you find such a guide. More important, however, such a phrase -- to my ear, anyway -- is simply not a feature of the genre of newspaper story. It sticks out, as they say, like a sore thumb. I should make clear that I don't think this is the reporter's fault. She's stuck in an impossible rhetorical situation: she has to do something that the genre she's working in has no space for.
What has all this to do with classrooms, academic discourse, and plagiarism? Rather a lot, I'd argue. The rhetorical situation she found herself in is powerfully similar to the situation of most students writing essays for classes, in that a textual feature that does not actually have any rhetorical function was being arbitrarily required of her, and while she accepted its necessity she didn't have any way to feel its functionality, or connect it with her reader. Of course, it's true that for her there are real readers out there in a way that there are not for students writing essays, but neither the genre she's working in nor her model of her audience provides her with the strategies to make her citation any more than perfunctory. One can imagine a discursive text in which she explained where she found the passage; one can imagine a full citation -- but neither would be a newspaper article, and any reader would be stopped cold by it. The current form the genre of newspaper feature article takes simply has no place for that -- though, obviously, it might at some point soon. Genres are, after all, as Catherine Schryer (1993: 208) told us, forms that are only "stabilized for now."
Surely, however, academic writing is a different matter from journalism? We all know that the classroom essay and the term paper -- whether written in a course whose focus is composition and writing, or in a "content course" where the focus is on learning the substance of a profession or academic discipline -- has the acknowledgement of its sources and the distinguishing of what's new and what's old at its centre.
Academic writing, however, is a complicated term. It does not constitute a genre, but rather a set of more or less distantly related genres, distinctions among which are masked by calling them all by the same name. Here, I want to insist on making a radical distinction between two broad categories of academic writing. On one end of a spectrum there is the academic article which exists as part of a disciplinary conversation, which is (or is intended to be) a response to an existing, public set of statements and utterances about a scholarly or scientific issue. The rhetorical situation of this group of genres has been explored extensively, most influentially by Charles Bazerman (1988).
On the other end of my rhetorical spectrum of academic writing is the classroom essay, written in isolation and read by one person, the person James Britton (1975) used to call "the teacher as examiner." To ignore the reality of the rhetorical position of the student essay writer, and to assume that she can get along without the rhetorical "back pressures" which provide writers with tools for shaping writing at the point of utterance (another phrase from Britton), is to miss something radically important to the process of writing, and learning to write, and learning to write in specific genres.
However different the cases may seem at first glance, there are important similarities between me writing this, my colleague down the hall polishing an essay for Victorian Studies, and my daughter writing up her lab's findings for The Journal of Eye Movement Research. There are differences, for sure, in our assumptions about audience and in the resultant diction, register, and structural choices -- but not in fundamental rhetorical position. In each case the central aims are to establish an authoritative ethos, to say something genuinely new to the imagined audience and to make its novelty clear to that audience, to place the new idea in a context that will allow both reader and writer to share an understanding of its significance, and by doing this to define or refine the position of the writer in an existing community of discourse. All of this may be in service of a practical goal like attaining promotion and tenure or building a reputation that gets job offers and grants, but those primary rhetorical goals govern the shape of the document. They may or may not be more important, but in this sense they're primary.
One way to make this concrete would be to consider a taxonomy of rhetorical motives for scholarly citation, as Shirley K. Rose does, partly because none of the positive rhetorical intentions she identifies can ever be found in student classroom writing. No student "attempts to negotiate a role in the community discourse [or] attempts to organize a turn in the disciplinary conversation" (1999: 243).
Let me offer an illustrative example of this. In Standing in the Shadow of Giants, Rebecca Moore Howard quotes Sharon Crowley. Here's how she does it (she's explaining that at one time written text was far less important or authoritative than speech:
. . . as Sharon Crowley (1994) explains, for ancient culture it had a rhetorical as well as epistemological rationale: "For ancient rhetors and rhetoricians, spoken discourse was infinitely more powerful and persuasive than was written composition" (p. 233). This importance was based partly on the "scarcity of writing ability" and also on how small were the public gatherings. (48)What Howard is creating here is a rhetorical action no example of classroom discourse would ever exhibit. She is not quoting Crowley in order to show where she got the "information" about this -- in fact, this probably isn't where she (or most of us) learned this, and Crowley was hardly the first to say it. She's not quoting Crowley in order to protect herself against the charge that she's "stealing" Crowley's idea (after all, it's not Crowley's own idea either) or avoiding the work of formulating it for herself. She's placing this idea in an existing scholarly discourse community, of which Crowley is a respected member (and whose name Howard expects her reader will probably recognize). She's invoking Crowley's authority as a support for a larger argument she's making, and she's flattering Crowley by enacting the assumption that Crowley has enunciated this idea well (otherwise Howard could have paraphrased it). She's inviting us to join with her in approval of Crowley's phrasing of the idea (that's especially true of her embedding of the phrase "the scarcity of writing ability" in her own sentence).
None of the motives which textbooks, handbooks, plagiarism policies and course descriptions suggest students take on board is here: and none of these motives are ever evidenced in any undergraduate essay written for a class -- though, very occasionally, a student who has picked up the lingo by reading actual scholarly or academic writing may sound a little as though she were doing this. When she does, it's very likely she'll be suspected of plagiarism: this sure doesn't sound like student writing, does it? If found in a term paper or class essay it would almost inevitably be seen as violating the discourse conventions of that genre.
There's room for a study of the academic classroom essay as a genre. What are its rhetorical motives, its social position, the typical choices its writer makes among diction, tone, audience assumptions: in other words, the features that characterize it as a text and mark it as a genre? It would be useful to be able to characterize it positively -- in terms of what successful examples look like -- rather than, as I regularly do, negatively, in terms of what it doesn't have. The challenge, however, is that the classroom essay or term paper is an extremely peculiar form, because it doesn't function in a community. It doesn't enter into dialogue. It does have motives, of course, but they are separable from what it says -- as Anne Freadman (1998) pointed out, any utterance in a French class is "an example of French" rather than an authentic act of discourse, with a rhetorical motive. And as Carolyn Miller's classic article, "Genre as Social Action," helped us see, genres act rhetorically.
And equally, from the writer's point of view, the social life of the class essay is weirdly truncated. The intention to have a rhetorical effect is denied the student author, since in fact she can't expect to have such an effect (and has probably never had the experience of having a piece of extended discourse have such an effect). Further, the traditional essay assignment, as Sue Carter Simmons has pointed out, gives students self-contradictory messages about that authorship.
Students were given responsibility for developing their "own" ideas, yet they were cautioned to avoid first-person pronouns and were provided with lists of suitable theme topics drawn from their reading. Students were given the responsibility for distinguishing their ideas from others, yet were provided with little direct instruction in how to do so. (1999: 51)Such traditional assignments, and most of the language we conventionally use around the term paper and the student essay, encourage the student to think of a text as a repository of information. If you do that, you have no tools to know what rhetorical motives are, how they work, how you might deploy them, or why they matter. Importing a chunk of text into your paper will be exactly the same as importing the information, and "saying it in your own words" will offer few advantages. Your own words are manifestly likely to be incorrect, clumsy, awkward or ungrammatical. Importing the whole text avoids such problems; the only obvious disadvantage is that you might be accused of plagiarism. Thinking of text as boxes of information rather than rhetorical moves means, then, that you're very unlikely to learn much about the ways in which texts achieve rhetorical goals, and that you're likely to remain someone following arbitrary rules to produce examples of discourse.
Given all this, the term paper and the essay have remained central to teaching in most humanities and social science courses -- and, indeed, are often recommended as desirable for the hard science courses which so often otherwise rely on factual memory. Why do we want this? What are the presumptions upon which we ask students to write essays? Why is it that we insist that they write essays in which they "do their own thinking," that they rigorously differentiate between what is "their own" -- what constitutes, shall we say, "fresh talk" -- and what's being repeated from elsewhere?
Surely the fundamental motive here is testing. Yes, it's true that we hope -- even that we believe -- that the act of shaping at the point of utterance is one that leads to, or even constitutes, learning; that it supports learning both about the object of the writing and about the act of writing itself. The text produced through this process, however, is finally a dead artifact, unhooked from any truly dialogic function. How we actually treat it is as an examination -- as evidence of something. We disguise this, of course (even from ourselves), when we comment on texts in other than evaluative ways, and when we ask for revisions. But the ultimate purpose remains clear. And it becomes even clearer and more powerful when it is -- as it almost always is -- accompanied by evaluation and certification. Students write in order to get marks. How strong this motive is becomes obvious if you try to create a situation in which other motives apply, and when the writing doesn't contribute to a mark, and to certification.
What we really want, of course, when we assign these essays, is for the student to engage with ideas and information, reformulate them and it, and come out, one fresh word at a time, with her own new (or new to her) understanding. That's why we see even inadvertent or mistaken reproduction of the texts of others -- "patchwriting" of the sort Howard has described -- as somehow cheating, as somehow an avoidance of an onerous task. We want student writing to be hard; we want it to evidence engagement, thought, reflection. When a student wriggles out of that challenge by patchwriting typically we feel that the ideas have passed, as the old joke has it, from the eyes through the hand without visiting the mind on the way. And, of course, the ubiquity of electronic text makes that even worse: there's not even the dwelling on the words that's involved in manual transcription. (It's clear that this has happened in the past few years, though difficult to pin down just when the "tipping point" occurred when the technology of "mark & copy" became ubiquitous.)
So, inexorably, we are pushed toward thinking of plagiarism as an ethical rather than rhetorical or educational issue. And surely there's lots of precedent for that. Not only the authors of university calendars, plagiarism polices and academic integrity oaths, but students themselves as well, think of it in terms like those reported by Barry Kroll's survey of student ideas about it: "fairness" and "individual responsibility" (203).
It's not often recognized, however, how powerfully the academic context we've created affords this view -- and how it's part of a view which sees discourse as a form of competition for external rewards, awarded arbitrarily as social acts: as points in a game. I've made the point elsewhere, but it may bear repeating here: if you were taking a course to learn carpentry or Web design because you wanted to build a deck or construct a site for your enterprise, it would never occur to you to cheat: whether you cheated or not would not be an ethical decision. On the other hand, if you wanted a carpenter's license or certification as a Web designer, but had no plans to build anything, well, that begins to sound like an ethical challenge.
It's important to be clear about this: much published and public academic discourse -- and even other published discourse like poetry or novels -- exhibits to some extent, though to be sure never so thoroughly, this attachment to extrinsic rewards. We're all aware of how the need to "get published" in academic circles can shape written text and its rhetorical intentions -- so much so that those rhetorical ends can virtually vanish. The plagiarizing poet described by James Kincaid, who was publishing other people's poetry, changed superficially to avoid detection, clearly was far more interested in the extrinsic rewards of publishing than in any intrinsic wish to say something or affect people with his own language and ideas. He was after credit, too.
I became vividly aware of how this motive worked for myself when, after a long career as a student, and even after publishing my first scholarly articles, I found myself writing and editing for an actual magazine, with readers whom I might meet on the street, and actually attending to the rhetorical impact of my choices, because my words were being read by someone other than an authority whose sole intention was to pass judgment on them. Of course, I liked "being a writer," but what was crucial was the import of what I was saying.
It's true as well, of course, that these aren't categorical differences. No writing -- no speech -- is devoid of the motive to present oneself and to aggrandize one's own position in a discourse community. Of course, I loved the idea that someone I didn't know had read and liked -- maybe even admired -- my text. I might even have written in hope of such rewards. In fact, it's possible that I might never have written it without such hope. But at the core of the writing -- whether I was consciously aware of it or not -- was the fact that the text was going to function as an utterance in a conversation I cared about. This is the crucial element missing, categorically absent, from the classroom essay and the term paper.
This entire issue, like too many others, is one that in theory was settled some time ago. By the end of the last century there was a widespread professional consensus on the basic theoretical questions about what constitutes "plagiarism" vs. what constitutes the normal interchange of texts. As Rebecca Moore Howard had made clear, we all patchwrite all the time -- and in fact Bakhtin, one would have thought, had made it clear much longer ago, when he said that our speech is full to overflowing with the words of others. Among the community of those professionally interested in the teaching and learning of writing, the received view has been that plagiarism is a complex and difficult concept, a site for reflection on teaching and learning rather than on ethics, morality and punishment. Text appropriation is not necessarily cheating, and not necessarily theft. This is all about learning how to engage in written discourse communities.
As with advances in medicine, though, the really difficult -- and unsexy -- part is delivery. When the rubber hits the road, out there at the chalkface among my colleagues, not much has changed. Larry Cuban's wonderful description of the intractability of educational practice remains powerfully descriptive. Consider change in educational theory, he says, as
a hurricane sweeping across a sea: fifteen-foot waves on the turbulent surface, roiled waters a fathom down, and calm on the ocean floor. . . . While professional journals resound with pro and con arguments on theory, letters to the editor and sharp rebuttals get dipped deeper in hot acid, books are written and reputations made, convention programs are filled with slogans from advocates and skeptics of the theory, and professors of education propound that construct to their students, most publishers continue producing texts uninfluenced by the theory and most teachers teach content with methods untouched by controversy, slogans, journal articles, or convention programs. (1979: 142-3)Here, as in so many areas, it seems that practice is going to have to lead theory. Theory doesn't seem have much power to change our practice. I remain, though, hopeful that material circumstances might. The practices that occasion and afford plagiarism and the criminal justice model of response to it may still be changed by the increasing difficulty of enforcement practices. If you can't lick 'em you'd better join 'em.
I have argued elsewhere (in "Four Reasons to Welcome Internet Plagiarism," for example) that in fact we can't lick 'em, that the ease of importing text and the facility for manipulating it given to us by the computer and the Internet have made it exponentially more difficult to keep students who see what's going on as a game from smuggling their academic steroids into the locker room. If it's not impossible now, it soon will be -- pace turnitin.com. Further, I am unconvinced that all the enlightened suggestions for restructuring essay assignments so that plagiarism becomes impossible, or too difficult to bother with, will work either. A quick look at the horror stories regularly retailed in articles on the plagiarism plague, or a scan through the electronic lists for discussing teaching and writing, will make this clear.
OK, so how, really, might we change the situation? What is it that we want our students to be learning, here, and how can we help them learn it? I think its pretty clear that though we may want them in the short term to be learning how to write the genre of academic essay, even more and in the much longer term we want them to be learning how to learn to write new genres they havent encountered yet. And we want them to be learning those rhetorical strategies that allow them to embed someone else's language, and someone else's ideas, into their own rhetorical acts -- which means, I think, that we want them to be committing rhetorical acts, because it's in action that we learn about language. Whether they come from China or backwoods New Brunswick, whether they come from a different academic culture or from no academic culture at all, what they all need to be learning (and to some extent what we are all learning, all the time) is how to join the sorts of textual conversations that are occurring in academic contexts.
It's my contention that (a) the classroom essay and the term paper are not effective ways to help students learn this, and that (b) even if they were, plagiarism is so easy and so tempting that it will undercut any such learning. Further, of course, it will continue to poison the atmosphere in which learning occurs. So, as I've argued elsewhere, I welcome the growing ease with which students can find texts to allow them to fulfill the forms of the term paper without the irrelevant and risky work of formulating their own inadequate utterances.
Here's where it gets difficult. Weaning ourselves from our dependence on the essay is not easy -- it's rather like weaning ourselves from a dependence on fossil fuels. Indeed, I expect it's not going to happen until it's forced on us. I've spent much of the last decade or two of my teaching trying to find ways to get "off the grid," as one might say, and while I'd never suggest that I've found that Grail, I do, I think, have a couple of clues about directions we can take.
My students regularly come into my class, never, ever, having had the experience of writing extended discourse in order to inform, persuade, amuse, or present themselves to someone they care about informing, persuading, amusing, or presenting themselves to, and either succeeding or failing. This is as true of students from Dorn Ridge, New Brunswick as it is of students from Wenzhou, China. My central aim as a teacher is to offer them that experience. Academic or class essays aren't a tool I can use for that; but creating situations in which writing is used as a tool for learning and for creating and maintaining social relationships may well be.
One of the ways in which I've attempted to create such contexts for student writing is in the course I began by referring to, in which students engage in a number of writing-based activities which have, I believe, the potential to deploy writing in ways which serve authentically rhetorical purposes. Discussions of readings of scripts and of attendance at productions are conducted on line, in a public forum where students engage in persuasion of and explanation to others as well as in presentations of self. Students in groups do research on individual plays, exploring individually and reporting what they've learned and found back to the group. The group pulls what has been found into a collaboratively-produced Web site on the play, its writer, and its context, and presents that to the rest of the class, who are encouraged to comment, question, respond, and evaluate. And, most interestingly from my point of view, another group entirely is charged with extracting from that Web site enough text and graphics to serve as a four-page playgoer's guide, which is formatted, printed, and distributed at the theatre with the programs. Students who attend the performance regularly report that they find it fascinating to watch others in the audience reading their playgoer's guide. All of these forms of writing, it seems to me, avoid the tendency of the class essay to find something someone else has already said and say it yourself: finding someone else's description of a reading of a script is likely, and is likely to be noticed by the others in the class who read it; further, there's not much motive since the writing is not evaluated for quality, but rather used as a basis for discussion. Similarly, with the research on plays, since the question addressed is not "what do you have to say about the play?" but rather "what have you found out about the play?" there's no motive to disguise your sources -- in fact, rather the reverse is true.
In all my courses -- I've written about these strategies at some length
elsewhere (2004, 2002, 1996) -- the fundamental principle I try to use
in creating writing tasks is that they explicitly acknowledge their real
rhetorical situation, and that the writing involved is not evaluated by
an authority for purposes of certification. It's read, and used, for purposes
intrinsically connected with what it says. In my view, it's in using writing
for such authentic academic purposes that learning how to write for such
purposes -- and learning what it means for writing to be rhetorical --
can best occur. It's my hope that some of my students are learning why
academic genres are the way they are: something, in other words, about
the social life of texts.
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