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Plagiarism for Beginners

Students, after reading this you can't blame Google for lulling you into copying other people's words.

Crawford Kilian 9 Aug

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian caught a lot of plagiarists in 40 years of teaching, but never enjoyed the experience.

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Crooked? Or unintentional?

Welcome, class of 2014. You're about to enter post-secondary armed with your smartphone and laptop, and every campus is now wireless. This is a good time to think about the hazards of plagiarism.

The word comes from plagiarius, Latin for kidnapper, and plagiarism is a kind of intellectual kidnapping -- stealing ideas instead of people. Every college and university website has a page about plagiarism policy.

Every prof, on the first day of classes, will lay out that policy. This speech will terrify you without making any sense at all. After the third or fourth prof has given it, you will glaze over and start texting your buds: plagerism wtf?

When the big term papers come due late in the semester, some of you will submit examples of either dumb plagiarism or crooked plagiarism. This is not because you are really dumb or crooked, but because you live on the far side of a cultural gulf from your profs and the whole academic world.

Job training for scholars

For academics, undergraduate post-secondary is practical job training for scholars. Years of increasingly demanding coursework have a clear goal: to teach you how to do real research and to publish it for your colleagues.

Some of that research is primary, the result of experiments and work in the field. Others should be able to repeat such research and get similar results.

But much research is also secondary, based on reading, synthesizing, and critiquing the work of other scholars. It relies largely on appeals to authority -- if Northrop Frye or J. Tuzo Wilson said so, it's more credible than if only I say so.

As a new student you are clueless about this, and also about the combativeness of scholarly life. Academics are always fighting. As a young scholar, if you can't back up your assertions with reproducible results or appeal to recognized authority, the old ones will demolish you for your sloppy methodology.

What's worse, published scholars own their findings. Their glory is in their publications, and in the number of times that others cite those publications. To be the most-often cited expert in a field is to be a scholar above the rest.

So scholars don't like seeing you plagiarize their work, just as retailers resent your shoplifting.

Why be a scholar?

Apprentice scholars understand this. But most of you are not scholars and never will be. You are in school only to get a non-academic job. For you, university is a waiting room where you're trapped for years. You just want to get through the wait with as little effort as possible until you collect your degree.

Chances are you have time-management problems and little experience in academic libraries with real books. You do have easy access through Google to articles and essays on every conceivable topic, so plagiarism becomes the path of least resistance.

If you're a dumb plagiarist, you just didn't understand the warnings on the first day of classes. Further advice on citation of sources didn't make sense either. You'll be stunned to find out you shouldn't just cut and paste stuff from websites.

Crooks game the system

If you're a crooked plagiarist, you think you're smart enough to game the system. You know what you're doing, but you also know your prof has a huge workload: If the prof gives your class of 30 a 2,000-word research paper, that's 60,000 words to read and grade in a few days. The prof has three or four such classes. Surely your particular paper won't get much attention.

You have no idea how paranoid your prof is. You also have no idea that profs actually read, instead of just skimming. Because they read, profs recognize writing style, and you don't write like a prof -- or even like a journalist.

Plagiarists use Google, but profs use Google even more. I well recall the tourism student whose paper on Thai cuisine was well written but not on the topic we'd agreed on. I typed one of his sentences into Google Advanced Search, it came up on the first hit, and he was a goner. (I'd warned his class about this, but he'd been absent that day. Typical.)

Some schools go even further. UBC uses Turnitin. This is a kind of plagiarism search engine. Before you can submit your essay to your prof, you first have to turn it in to Turnitin. It will tell you if you've screwed up, giving you time to get your citations straight. Or choose a new career.

Many websites offer pre-written essays by other students, like the files that fraternity houses used to supply their members when I was a student half a century ago. From what I've seen of their goods, you might as well write your own research essay. You'll do better.

Don't hire a ghost writer

Others are now offering "non-plagiarized essays" -- but it's still plagiarism if you didn't write the essay. A scholar wouldn't hire a ghost writer, so why would you?

International students, especially Asians, come under special scrutiny. B.C. post-secondary faculty don't know much about such students' cultures, but they have a vague idea that Asian scholarship doesn't bother with citations -- you just quote the authorities because they're the authorities.

According to Ryan Brown in Salon, that's because Asian authorities are so well known that it would be insulting to readers to cite them. It would be like saying "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2).

More likely, such plagiarism is the result of Asian students' anxiety about their English. They were top of their class in Seoul or Beijing. Getting here cost their parents a fortune. Now they're in English immersion, and their language skills don't seem good enough. So they grab some essay off the web and present it as their own work.

If you’ve read this far, you may be a scholar

The answer to this problem is better recruitment of Asian students, not louder speeches about plagiarism. But when post-secondary needs every warm body it can find, that is a step it won't take.

Maybe we should treat all of you in the class of 2014 as real scholars in training, and teach you by throwing you into the deep end: This is what we're trying to learn right now, it's really important, and you're going straight to the sharp edge of our research. It matters to us, so it better matter to you.

If it doesn't, good luck -- and get lost.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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