Pedagogical, Aesthetic and Ethical Values

My own entrance into the plagiarism discussion was inspired by an overall sense of frustration over what I see as often misguided, sometimes extremist and even hypocritical approaches to authorship and attribution in most institutional plagiarism standards. Other participants shared a similar unease with both the standards and the punitive measures behind them. Nick Carbone remarked that "reading plagiarism guidelines and admonitions have always sounded like, to [his] ear, the sadistic prison camp warden in ‘Cool Hand Luke’: Don’t properly paraphrase, a night in the box; forget to add a citation, a night in the box. Rules for proper mechanics and forms for handling sources come across as byzantine and opaque." My own feeling was that "changing values of authorship, new opportunities for collaboration, and improved, easily accessible information technologies…make it difficult if not impossible to assess student writing and research practices via conventional standards for plagiarism."

Given that "the notion of plagiarism is highly situated" (Irvin Peckham), the focus for several participants became the various situations, or more generally the intellectual/political/moral climate in which definitions of authorship, plagiarism, copyright and "proper" attribution come into play. The issue of ownership and debt, as well as larger issue of models of production and exchange in a capitalist economy, became crucial to myself and some others. Discussion also turned on possible differences between plagiarism and copyright violation.

[authorial ownership]

Regarding the former, Patrick Courts lent a valuable historical and multicultural perspective by reminding us how surprised we might be "at how many groups believe that one owns words no more than one owns land." The notion of "owning" one’s writing struck me as well as a concept demanding further attention, especially with regard to classroom economies: "we operate in a system of exchange that treats words and ideas and sentences, etc., as commodities with exchange value – hence the whole idea of giving ‘credit’ and acknowledging ‘debt,’ of ‘ownership (i.e., not passing off another’s words as ‘one’s own’), as if ideas were properties." In a follow-up post I mentioned the "heavy reliance on commercial metaphors" in published rules regarding use and attribution, and I suggested that one possible way out of the plagiarism problem was to begin by introducing a new, noncompetitive means of talking about scholarly and student writing.

John McLaughlin rightly advised a bit of caution when using "capitalism" (and by extension capitalist or market-oriented models) to contextualize discussions of writing, stating how important it is "to get capitalism straight, not to demonize it in the process of describing it." More to the point, McLaughlin also reminded the List of "the material basis of relationships involving exchange of information" in our age. The question raised by McLaughlin in a follow-up post was a good one: "Can we disconnect the money from the ideas, and do something noncompetitive with the thinking? That seems to be the challenge…. I agree our classes are as good a place as any to start…."


For some, the plagiarism debate boiled down to an issue of fundamental morality and ethics. Gerard Donnelley-Smith stated: "If a student plagiarizes and I don’t respond, then I have failed the purpose of the liberal education. [Our institution produces] thinkers, not copyists…, writers, not scriveners…. I hold students accountable for their ideas, and the appropriate use of the ideas of others. Teaching what I consider a valuable ethic with which they may face the marketplace." In an educational environment in which the instructor sees it as his or her task to instill writerly values as well as writing skills, it is perhaps easy to understand how any infringement on those values, or any violation of the standards derived from those values, can be, as Ron Shook suggested, "occasion for moral outrage."

Shook also clarified in a follow-up post that "the offense of plagiarism is not against the information or the body politic, but against a set of specific institutional guidelines, made in the centuries when we conceived of knowledge as unitary, concrete and salable." Perhaps in indirect response to Ron Shook’s reference to "institutional guidelines," Dean Rehberger asked: "Perhaps what I and others are saying is that the ‘lie’ of plagiarism does not start with the student but with our mystical standards of what we want?" [note: here is John McLaughlin’s response to the use of the term ‘lie’] As I and others suggested in our posts, the plagiarism problem may begin with the outmoded notions of authorship, intellectual property and "proper use" which inform conventional institutional plagiarism standards. As a result, these standards may need to be redefined to account for changing values.