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.

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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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