After I got an English degree a few years ago, I became a marker for one of my favourite professors. In this capacity I was privy to the toils of undergraduate writers as they negotiated Margaret Atwood and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s first novels, and I deciphered themes and symbolism along with them. I became a better writer for the experience, and I’m grateful to have had it. Invariably, though–and I do mean invariably, because it happened with startling regularity–I discovered plagiarized work. Sometimes it was subtle and triggered by just an out-of-place word or anachronistic syntax that raised the proverbial red flag in my mind. Something wouldn’t feel right, and with a little searching Google and I usually found out why that was. Sometimes the plagiarism was blatant, though–pages and pages of text that jarringly shifted from awkward and self-consciously-overwritten undergraduate tone to one that became miraculously fluid and erudite. On occasion these egregious errors were committed by international students who no doubt already struggled with writing in a language unfamiliar to them, but that wasn’t always the case. And it made me wonder why it was happening. Why did these students so blatantly seem to disregard rules about plagiarism (to which they were most certainly exposed on every single course outline)? Did they think I wouldn’t notice or be able to expose them? Perhaps, but possibly they didn’t view this practice to be as heinous as I did. Maybe the question of writing original words in an original voice wasn’t that important to them–and in the age of digital communication, where information is cut, pasted, and shared constantly and frequently with quite often no attribution whatsoever, perhaps they had a point. What exactly is plagiarism in the internet age? Is it even still relevant in an era of ubiquitous and frequently unacknowledged information-sharing? Is it truly time for the author to die?
Examining academic literature in light of these questions uncovers various mindsets on the issue, that, predictably, vary along the political spectrum. Technical and business spheres regularly make unauthorized use of writing by other authors without entertaining any moral or ethical qualms, where perhaps a more left-leaning bent on the subject would suggest that all inspiration is derivative, that there are no longer any original authors anyway, and that, were information sentient, its overwhelming desire would be to be as openly shared and accessible as possible. As well, the nuances of copyright vs. plagiarism enter into any debate about original writing, along with recommendations to reform both elements. At the very least, plagiarism as a concept probably needs to be rethought in the world of digital information and the enclosure of same, and the implications of this rethinking certainly impact notions of authorial freedom in any environment.
It must be confusing to be a business school graduate these days. A moment of pity for the recently-convocated MBA. Throughout her degree she is warned of the dangers of plagiarism, and threatened with disciplinary action if such a serious crime is committed. Then, upon graduation, she enters the workplace and is expected to engage in activities like formatting templates using existing uncredited information, working in teams to produce single documents without any guarantee of authorship credit, or otherwise repurposing previously written content and presenting it as original material–all practices that could have gotten her failed or expelled during her university years. How to reconcile this hypocrisy? Jessica Reyman notes it in her article “Rethinking Plagiarism for Technical Communication”, saying that “while the concept of ‘reusable’ text has become commonplace for technical communicators in industry settings, it has yet to be reconciled fully with current approaches to plagiarism in academic contexts” (Reyman, 2008).
Perhaps it is a labelling issue. Because technical writing can get away with calling itself “reusable text,” it is perhaps above the jurisdiction of plagiarism. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, because it was written to be used–it is functional, rather than artistic, and content in this arena is viewed as product. MF Elbe confirms this view of writing in her description of “single-sourcing” (a somewhat contradictory term for team-produced documents), which she says “begin with the discovery of information or content , and conclude with delivery of information or content as product” (Elba, 2003, quoted in Reyman, italics mine). Words like ‘discovery’ and ‘delivery’ when used to describe information say nothing about its creation or creators, and this foregrounding of the purpose and universal functionality of writing instead of its origin in essence renders the notion of plagiarism somewhat moot. If there are no credited authors in this boilerplate approach to writing, how can anyone be accused of ‘stealing’ someone’s original work? And if this kind of piecemeal composition is commonplace in business settings, why are students still being taught that plagiarism is a VERY BAD THING? If this double standard persists, the academy must, as Reyman suggests, “help students to distinguish between intellectual ‘theft’ and common and ethical composing practices in the workplace” (Reyman, p. 62), or understandable confusion will result.
Some of this confusion is evident in a study by Ranamukalage Chandrasoma et al entitled “Beyond Plagiarism: Transgressive and Nontransgressive Intertextuality.” Rebranding plagiarism as “textual borrowing” is perhaps just dressing the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, but the study’s interviews with actual students accused of plagiarism show revealing attitudes towards this issue. Ranging from indifference (“I don’t care whether the lecturer think [sic] I’m intelligent or not, I just want to get quite good mark [sic]” (p. 177)) to claims of immunity due to the ‘common knowledge’ aspect of cited information (“if he or she [meaning the lecturer] knows the source, and we’ve all discussed it many times, why should it be necessary to tell him or her what it is?” (p. 183)), it is apparent that students rankle at following the letter of the law in this regard. Chandarsoma et al suggest that contemporary plagiarism is more context-dependent than simply right or wrong, and their use of terms like ‘transgressive’ and ‘nontransgressive’ allow for these nuances to be addressed, while still allowing for the play of the writer dealing with the interstitial nature of 21st-century texts.
Intentional copying of any text is still viewed as plagiarism in the minds of Chandarsoma et al, but they also indicate that, for students raised in a “remix culture” where cutting, pasting, and reforming media to their own purposes (without author attribution) is commonplace, building a piece of writing is less an exercise in original thought production than it is a reconstruction–a practice that, they suggest, is “more of an issue of academic literacy than academic dishonesty, and is therefore best viewed primarily as a developmental problem” (Angelil-Carter, 2000, quoted in Chandarsoma, p. 174). This reaction could possibly be taken two ways: either the students need to be educated in the proper procedures for engaging in the post-secondary writing process, or the academy needs to get with the times. Literacy has a plural connotation in our current age, and fluencies should incorporate both digital and written practices to be truly relevant. All parties involved should also be taking part.
Chandarsoma et al also hint at the power structures inherent in the academy, with professors (or their egomaniacal markers) having the potential equally to pass judgements on the originality of students’ work, or to miss blatant and intentional plagiarism because they are simply not aware of it. Context and individual education and bias are again factors here, and, as Chandarsoma et al posit, “markers’ perceptions of an authorial self–and thus the extent to which a text is seen as original or borrowed–have been shown to depend largely on writers’ [and readers’, I would suggest] unequal access to discursive resources within a larger sociopolitical context” (Starfield, 2002, quoted in Chandarsoma et al, p. 174). Whether you think something is plagiarized depends on whether you know it is, in other words, and the authors of this article go on to suggest that so-called “patchwriting” (ie. picking and choosing from observed texts and incorporating the selected pieces into a whole) is a necessary step on the road to a young writer discovering his own unique voice. Indeed, learning from imitation and direct duplication is considered acceptable practice in any of the other arts (even for purposes of adjudication), so to make writing exempt from this ritualized process of learning seems unfair, at the least.
So, if author attribution is context- and genre-dependent, if the discovery of plagiarism is also dependent on the reader, and if current notions of plagiarism do not consider the actual use and function of writing in the contemporary workplace, what does this say about the continued existence of this idea of plagiarized text? There are philosophical angles that could be applied (Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and Brecht’s distancing of same come immediately to mind), but it is perhaps interesting to frame the question of plagiarism’s continued relevance in terms of Marxist theories of immaterial labour and digital enclosure, just to see where that takes us.
Autonomist Marxist theory, as per Nick Dyer-Witheford’s article “Cycles of Net Struggle, Lines of Net Flight” is concerned with the classic issues of capital and labour, but with an emphasis on “the potential independence, or autonomy, of people, and of the creative energy he [Marx] called labor–’the living, form-giving flame’”(Marx, 1973, quoted in Dyer-Witheford, p. 62). Technology from an autonomist Marxist perspective, then, could be viewed either as a tool of capitalist domination or as a force for good–and in accordance with the latter view, that the people using that technology will find ways to use it that circumvent or challenge the chain of command. Indeed, Dyer-Witheford suggests that capital “cannot avoid summoning up new types of technically skilled, scientifically literate workers, who themselves become sources of dissent, putting their skills to subversive use, bending, twisting, and even detaching part of the capitalist process of technological development to move it in different directions” (Dyer-Witheford, p. 62).
This would imply that the existence of technology enabled its own digital plagiarists, and that that endpoint was inevitable, but it’s probably not as simple as that. What is interesting about this autonomist perspective is the resourcefulness and positive agency it attaches to people–to discover, to circumvent, and to innovate. Left to their own devices, Dyer-Witheford seems to be saying, people will always be resourceful enough to come up with new ways of doing things with their tools–even things that challenge and break the rules, unless the rules evolve. This kind of people-centric initiative (with its concomitant notions of open access and “nonproprietary information circulation” (Dyer-Witheford, p. 67)) is what built the Internet in the first place, so perhaps it is naive of us to think that this perspective would disappear as that same Internet grows up. One person’s digital plagiarists are another’s compositional pioneers, is a possible (albeit somewhat utopian) reading of Dyer-Witheford’s text, and by this token proponents of patchwriting and other unattributed cut-and-paste techniques are perhaps just ahead of their time.
What these pioneers/plagiarists certainly are, if they end up working in the corporate sector as earlier described, are immaterial labourers–another decidedly Marxist term. Writing single-sourced documents whose authors go unattributed, using previously-created templates and layouts, ghostwriting documents for superiors–these are all prime examples of the kind of unacknowledged labour (and labour removed from the creative artistic process) that Marx might find familiar. The act of “writing-for-content” and writing deliberately in a manner that removes any mark of the individual author is startlingly similar to the kind of wage labour arrangement observed by Marx and described in articles such as Mark Andrejevic’s “Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure” (2007). Andrejevic relates the land enclosure movement to our current digital environment, outlining how today’s workers are just as forcibly removed from their own means of production as were farmers in the feudal era, and likewise just as “free” to enter into contractual agreements that reduce their individuality: “This form of freedom from the means of securing their own sustenance underlies a second form of so-called freedom: that of ‘freely’ agreeing to enter into a labor contract under terms advantageous to employers and exploitative to workers” (Andrejevic, p. 302). If “workers” in business and technical writing professions are in fact actively discouraged from writing content in which their individual voices may develop–if they are, in essence, removed from their artistic means of production and forced to write as wage labourers for corporations–is it any surprise that they do not place any high importance on avoiding plagiarism? If they have their own authorial voices silenced, why should they care (or even be aware of) anyone else’s? Unless the author is valued, the author is dead, and plagiarism is irrelevant.
In researching this paper I found a remarkable essay by one of my favourite authors, Jonathan Lethem. “Ecstasy of Influence” is a piece about artistic attribution, influences, and borrowings…and is itself entirely plagiarized. Lethem masterfully weaves snippets of other works into a cohesive whole, revealing his deceptions in endnote Keys where he credits his various sources. If I hadn’t already known the conceit of this piece, I’m not sure I would have suspected that none of it was Lethem’s original work, despite having read a number of the works cited. The fact that Lethem’s editing made the work “seem” original further obfuscates the notion of plagiarism. Where is the author in a piece like this? Who is it, really? Does Lethem’s idea and his editing prowess entitle him to authorial credit in tandem with the writers he is quoting? Of course, these issues are precisely what Lethem is presenting–on micro and macro levels–by creating this work in the first place.
Plagiarism is a thorny issue in these times, and has to keep being considered and revisited on various levels to evolve and remain current. Of course authors should be recognized for their work, but, as has been discussed, it’s not as simple as that. As Lethem (via Mark Twain and Helen Keller and Siva Vaidhyanathan and who knows who else) writes, “the kernel, the soul–let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances–is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand” (Lethem, p. 68). I wish I could tell you that every thought I’ve written here was original, but that’s obviously not true. Yet I’ve attempted to arrange those words in a fashion that is unique to me and that hopefully speaks in my voice, as any writer strives to do. I hope it worked.
Andrejevic, Mark. “Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure.” The Communication Review 10 (2007): 295-317. Web. 4 April 2013.
Chandrasoma, Ranamukalage et al. “Beyond Plagiarism: Transgressive and Nontransgressive Intertextuality.” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 3:3 (2004): 171-193. Web. 16 April 2013.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick. “Cycles of Net Struggle, Lines of Net Flight.” Information Technology in Librarianship. ed. Gloria J. Leckie and John E. Buschman. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2009. 61-82. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism.” Harper’s Magazine, Feb. 2007. Web. 16 April 2013.
Reyman, Jessica. “Rethinking Plagiarism for Technical Communication.” Communication 55.1 (2008): 61-67. Web. 16 April 2013.