Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The big lie about plagiarism

One of the big lies that Universities tell their students is that plagiarism isn't worth it: that you can't get away with it (not forever, at least) and that the punishment isn't worth the risk.

In more than six years, and more than 400 students, I've "caught" four people. I write "caught" because two of them were actually nabbed by software (Turnitin) and I could never prove that the third plagiarized - it was clear, from the change in font and suddenly excellent prose, that she didn't write it, but I couldn't find any evidence. The fourth included three pages that were lifted directly from a single source, no quotation marks, with a footnote at the end of the third page. The student claimed total ignorance to the conventions of referencing and attribution, which I was inclined to believe because there was certainly no way I would mistake those three pages for her own work - she was astoundingly sloppy, not deceptive.

Of these four cases, two were given no penalty at all and the three-page non-quoter was allowed a re-write, albeit with a huge penalty. (She still failed the assignment.) The other case, one of the essays caught by Turnitin, was the only one that I thought was truly egregious. Half the essay contained other people's words, and they had been cribbed from multiple sources - three sentences from Author A, two paragraphs from Author B, and so on. And then a few conjunctions and phrases tossed in just to break up the strings of borrowed words.

For all that, though, she barely failed the assignment and the plagiarism was never actually reported. Why? Because she was a fourth-year student and the instructor didn't want to jeopardize her graduation. He also didn't want to make the school look bad, justifying it with word to the effect of 'if we're only catching her now, how many other essays do you think she's plagiarized?' Evidently, ass-covering is more important than transparency and, y'know, ethics.

Plagiarism isn't taken all that seriously outside of the academy, either. I'm thinking about these things because of this Media Culpa story about the loathsome Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, which notes that she has problems with migrating quotation marks, misattribution, and eerily derivative word choice and phrasing. From The Canadian Journalism Project:
In 2009, a J-Source piece by Anne McNeilly, a Ryerson University journalism professor, looked at a Wente column on cell phones that was strikingly similar to one written by The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd just two days earlier. And Carol Wainio, who runs the Media Culpa blog that has been the reference for many today in discussing the long-time Globe and Mail columnist, has spent a considerable amount of time over the last 18 months picking apart Wente’s work. [...] Since that initial post, there have been at least 31 separate posts on Media Culpa about Wente or about The Globe’s issued corrections or editors notes added to her work.
The Globe and Mail "disciplined" Wente - though it's unclear what that word means, and she hasn't lost her job - but didn't actually called it plagiarism, even if it does meet the definition of the word. And Wente, for her part, hardly owned up to it. What's worse, her response reeked of classlessness. I'll only grab a couple pieces:
I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.


I haven’t always lived up to my own standards. I’m sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences. But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm. Most of all, I regret the trouble I’ve created for my Globe colleagues by giving any opening at all to my many critics. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any openings. In the real world, there are.
In the first selection, which appeared in the third paragraph of Wente's column, she frames the accusation as part of a witch-hunt. It's not the plagiarism that's the problem, but her politics. This isn't professional, it's personal. These aren't the words of someone who's sorry for her mistake, or who even necessarily recognizes that she's made one. This is someone who feels that she was unfairly targeted by a blogger with a grudge, and thus wants to subtly discredit the accuser. (Which continues, more explicitly, when she dubs Media Culpa's Carol Waino as "a self-styled media watchdog" who "has been publicly complaining about my work for years".)

The second selection I've quoted, Wente's final paragraph, is just as hilarious and telling. It's hilarious because Wente, a right-wing op-ed writer, is precisely one of those people who's built a career on attacking the character and reputation of people who are politically opposed to her. And it's telling because her final stated regret is not that she embarrassed herself or her paper, but that she has "giv[en] any opening at all to my critics". Wente vaguely admits to giving ammunition to her enemies, but she can barely admit that she's made a mistake. I mean, here's another one:
Journalists know they’re under the microscope. If you appropriate other people’s work, you’re going to get nailed. Even so, sometimes we slip up. That isn’t an excuse. It’s just the way it is.
If "you" then "you're"... what is this, a hypothetical?

Wente does, thankfully, admit in spots that she's screwed up. But it's all described in a fairly dismissive way - she should have been more cautious and careful, and apologizes for being "extremely careless" when she copied another journalist's sentence word-for-word. (Although, as Wainio points out, that's not the only part of the column that Wente more-or-less copied from elsewhere.) But that's the only thing that she actually apologizes for. The rest? The fundamental problem, as Wainio aptly describes it, of "erod[ing] public trust"?  That's just the opinino of over-zealous, self-styled watchdogs who are out to attack honest folk's character and reputation, I guess.

And this is the what out students hear about and see when plagiarism happens - an inability to admit guilt, a refusal to punish the guilty. How can they possibly take us seriously when we tell them that plagiarism is a big deal and leads to big trouble? How can we take ourselves seriously?

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