Plagiarism: Why Does it Happen?
The Boston Globe's David Mehegan explores why, with all the scrutiny and the ease of searching text and tracking words the Internet provides, some writers continue to plagiarize. A good question, and good to see it addressed in a major newspaper constructively, instead of as just another story about the horrors of plagiarism and the need to crack the whip on plagiarizers. I'm particularly struck by this passage, early on in the article:
Why do they do it? With the Internet making it easy to disseminate and read virtually anything anyone writes, it has become that much easier to catch plagiarists. So why do writers continue to steal the works of others? There are many explanations: gnawing self-doubt, narcissistic self-confidence, haste, pressure from publishers and editors, unrestrained ambition, a self-destructive need to court disaster, and, sometimes, ignorance of what plagiarism is.I read this and can't help but think of students. I know self-doubt plagues many novice writers, which is what most of the students I teach are -- novice academic writers struggling to understand academic conventions. And too, many students are also ambitious, or narcissistically self-confident, sometimes self-destructive, and frequently ignorant of what plagiarism actually is. (They're also ignorant of the simple fact that if they can find something on the Internet, so can their teachers.)
''There has to be some anxiety that motivates it,'' says Louise J. Kaplan, a New York psychotherapist and author. ''It's very much tied up with a person's uncertain sense of personal identity. Tricking people and convincing them that something untrue is true helps them conquer some other anxiety.''
So what's a teacher to do?
For me, I've been really struck, and really impressed, by the notion of voice and plagiarism, which is why this Boston Globe article strikes me as so useful. I think one central "anxiety that motivates" plagiarism in students is what Keith Hjortshoi explores in this PDF excert from his book, Transition to College Writing: "Theft, Fraud, and Loss of Voice." He writes,
Both deliberate and accidental forms of plagiarism often result from the central challenge student writers face, especially in research papers: establishing a voice and perspective of their own. I’ve already explained that if you have not established your own authority over the subject and a reason for writing, it will be difficult to identify the boundaries between your ideas and language and those of other writers. What you have to say will be what others have already said. Everything you write will come directly from sources and will seem to need citation.
Again and again I've had students complain to me when I worked as a writing center tutor and explained to them what they needed to cite, that then everything in their paper would get a footnote. They're shocked to realize that they're not there, in their own writings. No voice, no argument exists that they've shaped. Instead, they've merely repeated what they've researched.
And it's not that as writers they need to be original all the time. (Clearly, if you read enough op. ed's, you'll find the same arguments being rehashed on any given hot issue again and again. See Michael Kinsley's "Sympathy for the New York Times: Often plagiarized. Seldom plagiarizing." at http://slate.msn.com/id/2083377/, for a more developed explanation of argument and story idea rehashing.) But a writer does need to find their own voice and point of view on an issue. It can be a point of view and argument shared by others, but the writer needs to have confidence in their take, in their articulation. And in writing, one's take is expressed in words and those words need to be one's own. The trick for many writers is knowing when words they write are recalled formulations from words they've read, and when they're new formulations they've made.
Students, I've learned from Hjortshoi, often stumble into plagiarism (or rush head-long into it) because they either cannot find or do not trust the authority of their own voice.
And that often happens because teachers don't do enough to foster that sense of authority in their students. Yes, of course many teachers do all they can to help writers find their voice, and they devise smart assignments, and collect work in increments and do all kinds of things to teach writing well and to help students understand the complexities of plagiarism, and despite doing this, students still plagiarize. But very often, many teachers do not do these things and student writing is cast adrift, separated from the writers who produce it.
Helping writers to find their voices, to be confident enough to use their voices, to move beyond, in first year writing courses, which is what I teach, the information-dump-research paper, the read-and-regurgitate-research paper, is no easy thing. Many students got grades in the past by excising voice and opinion from their own writing. They don't trust that I'll trust their voice.
But I can't think of what else there is to do, but to work in the direction Hjortshoi urges. Helping students find their own voice, their own words, so that they can distinguish better their voices and words from the voices and words of the sources they research, hear, read, and that really, when you think about it, always already surround them, seems to me more and more, the best way to help students understand, really, what plagiarism is all about.