The royal road to research

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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

6 thoughts on “The royal road to research”

  1. Interesting. We’ve just pub­lished an art­icle on pla­gi­ar­ism in Nature which has caused quite a stir in sci­entif­ic circles, and to my know­ledge one paper to be retrac­ted. A couple of sci­ent­ists wrote an algorithm to match text held in Medline, the main US data­base for pub­lished art­icles. They found a small minor­ity of over­lap — basic­ally the sys­tem is work­ing on the whole but there are a few sus­pi­cious art­icles.
    One prob­lem is that of sim­ul­tan­eous sub­mis­sion to journ­als– edit­ors can check against what is pub­lished but not what is sub­mit­ted to oth­er journ­als, as that is con­fid­en­tial. There is a cross-pub­lish­er pilot study under way on this.

    A few months ago, some Turkish authors were dis­covered to have cop­ies some manu­scripts from Arxiv, the phys­ics pre­print serv­er.

  2. Thanks for an inter­est­ing response to a per­en­ni­al ques­tion, Ian. If I may, a response to a couple of things you said:

    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.

    All things I abso­lutely agree with.

    But then -
    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. .….. 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.

    - here I have to ask the same ques­tion that I’ve already pos­ited. If an author sets a nov­el in a time or place that (s)he is not per­son­ally involved in — as in, a time before (s)he was born or a place where (s)he has nev­er lived — is it then a con­sensus that such nov­els must not, not ever, be writ­ten because, as you put it, “con­text and mean­ing already exist in the primary mater­i­al” and using such primary mater­i­al as research mater­i­al on which to base your own book is thus ver­boten?

    I appre­ci­ate the spir­it in which you say the above, but without those primary sources to SUPPLY my con­text I can­not set a book in any time or place oth­er than RIGHT here, RIGHT now. And, well, I write his­tor­ic­al fantasy. I need those van­ished worlds, and the know­ledge about them, before I can begin to build a world of my own with which the read­ers will feel sat­is­fied in the end.

    You also say -

    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.)

    Heh. Been there, done that. I don’t think there’s a writer among us who hasn’t eyes with envy or admir­a­tion or plain cov­et­ous­ness that utterly, utterly PERFECT sen­tence… that someone else has already writ­ten.

    I’m one of those writers who lists his sources and help­ers at the end of the book.

    I have my acknow­ledg­ments, too. But I do not sup­ply a full bib­li­o­graphy at the end of every nov­el. If any­one is inter­ested, I can tell them what books I’ve read to write my own — but this is a work of fic­tion, all of those books have been mashed up and diges­ted and some­thing ELSE, some­thing that is my own, has come out of it. This is not a thes­is. It is a work of fic­tion. If there are people who have per­son­ally helped me, like the pilots you men­tion:

    .…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.

    … then abso­lutely, they are men­tioned in the acknow­ledg­ments. I have a few people lis­ted in the back of my lates YA, com­ing out next year, because I phoned them and emailed them and they sent me archive art­icles and pic­tures and all kind of valu­able assist­ance and of COURSE they get a men­tion. I do not, how­ever, list everything that they provided for me, nor the use that I made out of the mater­i­al. That is between me, the book, and its read­ers. I am all for acknow­ledging kind­ness and oth­er people’s know­ledge and will­ing­ness to help — but I don’t think that it’s part of that com­pact that you speak of to have your read­ers go back and check your ref­er­ences. Your nov­el is, after all, a work of FICTION, and if everything isn’t pre­cisely the way it was in the ori­gin­al sources which you used that’s called artist­ic licence.

    I’d be truly inter­ested to hear what you thought of my nov­el “Embers of Heaven”. Its sub­ject mat­ter is deeply, deeply rooted in teh Chinese Cultural Revolution. I did a ton of read­ing for it. I took some licence with the his­tor­ic­al back­ground in order to write the story that needed to be writ­ten. I I acknow­ledge freely that I have read many books to write one. No, I didn’t list them indi­vidu­ally — it would be a whole mini lib­rary. And yet I used my primary sources with respect, with admir­a­tion, and with humil­ity — and I hope that the book that was born out of their fusion does them homage, and does them justice. As a nov­el­ist, I don’t know how much fur­ther than that I can, or should, go.

  3. Thanks for your com­ment, Maxine. It’s def­in­itely an inter­est­ing area, and often dif­fi­cult to really police, par­tic­u­larly when some art­icles are kinda/sorta plagiarised…but not quite enough to be clear cut. I’ve lost count of the art­icles that I’ve read by Author A in Publication X only to see a rejigged ver­sion of Author A’s paper pub­lished a few months later in Publication Y, per­haps with an extra author tagged on the end or the exper­i­ments described from a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive.

  4. Thanks, Alma, for your response — good to hear what you think.

    When I wrote about not using research ‘objects’ whole­sale without re-con­tex­tu­al­ising them in some way, I don’t think that pre­cludes using them at all. To take an example from the book I’m writ­ing, I want to write about a female fugit­ive escap­ing 1900s Russia via St Petersburg/Finland, and there’s a fant­ast­ic descrip­tion in one of my research books describ­ing exactly how some­body car­ried this out. My view is that, in order to ‘earn’ the right to use it, I’ll need to con­tex­tu­al­ise it to fit into my story, so the read­er is think­ing more about how this is rel­ev­ant to the story and what it means for the char­ac­ter they’re involved with. This changes its some­what. If they came across the source mater­i­al, they prob­ably wouldn’t recog­nise it because their memory would be more bound up with the mean­ing of the event than its phys­ic­al char­ac­ter­ist­ics — if I’ve done my job cor­rectly. So I think it’s per­fectly feas­ible to use someone else’s work as long you, so to speak, do some work in return. It’s those occa­sions when the writer gets lazy that read­ers feel cheated (in terms of the com­pact).

    Of course, this is the com­pact I feel I have (because it’s the com­pact I’d like the writers I read to have). I’m not sure how far I’d take it as a defin­i­tion of pla­gi­ar­ism.

    Embers of Heaven’ sounds inter­est­ing. I think a writer shows respect for her sources by trans­form­ing them through her own craft in some way — some­thing I’m sure you’ve done.

    Thanks again for your com­ment, and a thought­ful ori­gin­al post!

  5. Great stuff Ian — I can’t help but think that at least the first half of this piece would be more than wel­come on anoth­er blog …

    http://www.intute.ac.uk/socialsciences/blog/

    … not that I am encour­aging you to copy and paste any­thing or slightly alter paper X for appear­ing in pub­lic­a­tion Y — you under­stand 😉

    It’s a shame these things aren’t taught before stu­dents get to University, as it appears to be a prob­lem in schools too

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7194772.stm

    From the anec­dot­al evid­ence I’ve picked up, your approach to teach­ing the per­ils of pla­gi­ar­ism and prop­er research skills, seems a lot more con­scien­tious than some.

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