Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The P-Word > Stanley Fish And I Agree? > Plagiarism Is Not A Big Moral Deal


New York Times columnist, Stanley Fish,  " ... a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago," recently published his most recent NY Times Opininator column titled >

Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal


Whenever it comes up plagiarism is a hot button topic and essays about it tend to be philosophically and morally inflated. But there are really only two points to make. (1) Plagiarism is a learned sin. (2) Plagiarism is not a philosophical issue.


Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession. If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some)  ... .


And if you’re a student, plagiarism will seem to be an annoying guild imposition without a persuasive rationale (who cares?); for students, learning the rules of plagiarism is worse than learning the irregular conjugations of a foreign language. It takes years, and while a knowledge of irregular verbs might conceivably come in handy if you travel, knowledge of what is and is not plagiarism in this or that professional practice is not something that will be of very much use to you unless you end up becoming a member of the profession yourself.

It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into. It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished — if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules — just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.


See Also >The P-Word II > The Ontology of Plagiarism: Part Two > Get A Clue

As Some May Know I Have A Different View On The P-Word >

NYTimes > Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age




Carol Webb said...

Linked to this is the topic covered in Reality check on Radio 4 last night which looked at intellectual property and copyright - is it theft, is it a moral crime or is it evolution?
Available for listening for 10 more days only.
In terms of written work taking someone else's ideas and passing them off as your own is wrong. It is not a path to self-development. Telling people not to do it is insufficient. How to demonstrate the link to that idea and your own thinking needs to be taught before students reach higher education. It should be addressed at school level. If someone has never been shown how to fertilize their own thinking with inspiration from others and how to differentiate between the two - are they culpable?

Ed E. said...

I agree for the most part with Dr. Fish. Plagiarism of small amounts of text by student, while problematic in academic work, is mostly a breach of etiquette - academic etiquette. And there is a great deal of research that demonstrates that there are many other factors that influence why students copy source text, besides just poor ethics. Factors such as second language skills, knowledge of and understanding of citation practices, writing abilities etc. But I think plagiarism of entire papers or dissertations or theses by students, which I have seen, is a whole other deal. This is clearly wrong, and students (or faculty/researchers/writers) who do this after being exposed to the culture, deserve whatever repercussions they receive.

Prof Grant Horner said...

Your post showed up as an email that someone circulated among my faculty colleagues. They were quite shocked, and because I was mentored by Fish at Duke and I like him a quite a bit, I was questioned. The problem here is that the 'snips' presented do not actually show Fish's position, and in fact reverse it. I read the article the day it came out. In fairness, one needs to read it all:

Fish's point is that plagiarism is *theft*, and that this does not rely on philosophical abstractions. He is against it, and he is simply noting that many students now arrive at college with almost no ethical pre-understanding of this, due to a number of cultural shifts whiuch he enumerates in the essay. This snippet would have clarified the issue nicely:

"Arguments like these (which I am reporting, not endorsing) have been so successful in academic circles that the very word “originality” often appears in quotation marks, and it has seemed to many that there is a direct path from this line of reasoning to the conclusion that plagiarism is an incoherent, even impossible, concept and that a writer or artist accused of plagiarism is being faulted for doing something that cannot be avoided. R.M. Howard makes the point succinctly “If there is no originality and no literary property, there is no basis for the notion of plagiarism” (“College English,” 1995)." (END QUOTE)

I don't see your post as made in bad faith -- I am very familiar
with Stanley's style and I knew he was circumambulating around the real issue (he hates plagiarism) for rhetorical effect. In fact, halfway through the essay I myself was thinking "he can't possibly be justifying plagiarism?!?" This shows the power of the rhetoric. Just when the reader is most flustered, he then shows his hand clearly. Reading to the end of the essay:

"This brings me back to the (true) story I began with. Whether there is something called originality or not, the two scholars who began their concluding chapter by reproducing two of my pages are professionally culpable. They took something from me without asking and without acknowledgment, and they profited — if only in the currency of academic reputation — from work that I had done and signed. That’s the bottom line and no fancy philosophical argument can erase it." (END QUOTE)

I assume that like me you read the piece and were pretty flabbergasted by the first half (typical Fish) and may not have read it all, or all of it as carefully. The guy is definitely tricky! And you can quote me on that.

Best --

Prof. Grant Horner

GMcK said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comment !!!

If you have time, please review / read / view the presentation that I link to via another posting that I note in the Fish posting ...

NYTimes > Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age

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A few years ago I gave a keynote at the 3rd International Plagiarism Conference / 23 - 25 June 2008 / City Campus East, Northumbria University / Newcastle-upon-tyne, UK /

"Disruptive Scholarship: An Idea Whose Time Has Come: (Re)Use / (Re)Mix / (Re)New"


Hadrian's Wall is a stone and turf fortification built by the Roman Empire across the width of modern-day England. ... [It was] 117 kilometres long,

... [I]ts width and height [were] dependent on the construction materials [that] ... were available nearby.

... [T]he wall in the east follow[ed] the outcrop of a hard, resistant igneous diabase rock escarpment ... Local limestone was used in the construction, except for ... section[s] in the west ... where turf was used instead ... .

The Broad Wall was initially built with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed rubble facing stones, but this seems to have made it vulnerable to collapse, and repair with a mortared core was sometimes necessary.... [I]n time ...

[Hadrian's] Wall was abandoned and fell into ruin. Over the centuries and even into the twentieth century a large proportion of the stone was reused in other local buildings.

Throughout history, humans have (re)used local resources to create not only buildings and fortifications, but monuments, roads, and a wide variety of other structures. For countless generations, artists, composers, and writers have freely incorporated elements from local and distant cultures to create new visual, musical, and textual forms.

In The Web 2.0 World, the open (re)combination of multiple media has become commonplace in many venues, practices that Lawrence Lessig [snip], founder of Creative Commons [snip]and others, would characterize as emblematic of a 'Remix' or 'Read/ Write' culture. Indeed, from his point of view, “the health, progress, and wealth creation of a culture is fundamentally tied to this participatory remix process” [snip]

In the recently-released Horizon Report 2008 - a joint publication of the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), six emerging information technologies and practices that are expected to significantly impact educational organizations are profiled: Grassroots Video, Collaborative Webs, Mobile Broadband, Data Mashups, Collaborative Intelligence, and Social Operating Systems.

In this presentation, we will review the Read/Write Traditions of the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences; analyze key Past / Present / Future Participatory Technologies; and explore the potential of Web 2.0 for creating/fostering Disruptive Learning / Scholarship / Teaching in the 21st century.

The Director's Cut of the (150+ Slides) PPT is available from my _Scholarship 2.0_ blog at

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I hope The Title and Abstract indicate That I Have A Different View Of The P-Word [:-)

IMHO > One Could Not Ask For A More Apt Metaphor Than Hadrian's Wall

You may also wish to visit my other _Scholarship 2.0_ postings

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Ian McCracken said...

A dimension has not yet been covered which I think is important:
keyword identification.

I believe that if students could identify keywords successfully, then it would be easier for them to use their own words, since, by substituting synonyms for the keywords, they would be able to identify key points and render in their own words.

I am concerned that plagiarism discussion never seems to look at this Bigger picture.

I'd be delighted if others can demolish this argument!