Plagiarism: passing off another’s work as your own. It’s a tricky issue, and one highlighted with aplomb in an article recently posted by Alma Alexander on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Novelists blog. To paraphrase Ms Alexander, plagiarism is an emotionally-charged word whose darker connotations should not be, er, connoted in the case of those carrying out specific forms of research. Novelists, for example.
For the most part, I agree with Alexander’s post, though I wince at this sentence:
Academia puts it thusly, that lifting information from just one source is plagiarising; lifting from many sources is research.
Indeed we do not. I’ve spent several tedious (but necessary) two-hour seminars with my first year psychology undergraduates setting out the parameters of plagiarism. [Side note: On the mid-course evaluation questionnaire, students were asked: ‘What would you like to see more of in this seminar series?’ One answer: ‘I’d like more of those really long seminars where we do plagiarism and referencing, please’. The ‘please’ kills me.]
I teach plagiarism as this: When you include something – could be a criticism, a description, anything – in an essay or a report and you do not provide a correctly referenced source for that something, then you are plagiarising. By omission, you imply that you are the creator of that something. You also obscure the work that you’ve done in the construction of the essay (range, depth and your understanding of certain papers).
Now, plagiarism is a sliding scale. “Freud was rather pants” might be a useful summary of much work into the worth of early psychoanalysis (a somewhat stubborn stain on the rep of psychology, that) and I’m not going to a mark a student too harshly if this statement isn’t referenced; the student is quite capable of coming to this conclusion themselves, even if the conclusion peppers the literature. But if the student writes, “It might be argued that Freud considered dreams to be the royal road to the subconscious,” and does not include a reference, my nostrils will twitch. If the whole essay stinks – i.e. it includes an HTML horizontal line that the student hasn’t been able to delete since copying the text wholesale from Wikipedia – then I’ll press the plagiarism alarm beneath my desk, which is linked to the Vice Chancellor’s heavy mob.
Ostensibly, the issue of plagiarism in regard to literature is different, but I’m not so sure. Basically, the consensus seems to be: You can take things from other people’s work because (a) they’re probably dead (most people are, at this point in our evolutionary history); (b) it’s too bothersome to attribute originality, so why go to all that effort?
Well, that may be true on occasion. I’ve no doubt that Norman Mailer’s last book (The Castle in the Forest) contains a great deal of research into the early life of Adolf Hitler and I’m certain that, at its close, I’ll have no idea what sources he used. As a reader, do I need to? Probably not. And yet, there are elements of the book that I’ve – either correctly or incorrectly – identified as original to Mailer. The idea, perhaps, of God as the Dumkopf, or that Fallen Angels fiddled with Hitler’s childhood. If I were to look at Mailer’s sources and see a book that introduced this idea, I would feel somewhat let down.
At the back of my mind is the notion that there is a compact between the reader and the writer. It has many levels. Verisimilitude is one. Meaning is another. A third, perhaps, is historical accuracy unless fictional demands cause the writer to swerve around it. I understand, I think, the reaction of those who felt a little cheated that important parts of McEwan’s Atonement were not really authored by him. (Please excuse the fact that I haven’t read the novel.) To author something is to provide it with a meaning in context. If the context and meaning already exist in the primary material, it is a natural reaction for the reader to think that the value of the book has diminished. It is a form of cheating outside the cheating permitted by the tacit compact. There is a sense in which the materials of a book must be digested and re-configured; not inserted wholesale. (Though having read some beautiful passages during the research for my current book, the idea is bloody tempting.)
I’m one of those writers who lists his sources and helpers at the end of the book. Not to take the moral high-ground in a plagiarism sense, but I still have the academic urge to cite my references. Not, either, in a PhD-like way (my thesis references ran to over fifty pages, I think) but just to indicate to the reader the provenance of the book, in research terms at least. Its themes and character are mine. I also want the people who helped me to know that their aid was appreciated. Two Boeing 747 pilots have read over the bit of my second novel where I describe an air crash from the point of view of a pilot (opined one: ‘I don’t think you’ve understood the basic principles of flight’); it would have been literally impossible to do it without them, and it would be odd not to cite them as a source.
Anyway, the dishes won’t wash themselves. Take a look at Alexander’s article. It raises some interesting issues.