banner reading Stories of Plagiarism, Theories of Writing: How Public Cases of Plagiarism Reveal Circulating Theories of Writing


Rhetoric and Writing Studies have long attempted to bend plagiarism complaints toward theories of writing and learning. Media coverage and institutional discourse, on the other hand, continue framing plagiarism as an isolated, individual problem (Adler-Kassner, Anson, & Howard, 2008). And so we find plagiarism exhaustively covered and still exhausting. Given decades of stalemate, one could be forgiven for thinking plagiarism is best left an agree-to-disagree issue, best handled by in-house amelioration. Yet, one facet of plagiarism appears intriguing and overlooked: the arguments that surround public figures charged with plagiarism. Such debates bring to light the often invisible commonplaces about writing.

But since most studies concentrate on students, questions of authorship shift to ones of college expectations or novice-writers' needs. Public figures, in contrast, stand outside student framing. For an example, look no further than professional drag queen and "beauty guru" Kimberly Clark's position on authorship and ownership on YouTube.

Clark broke through the Internet’s crowded beauty-reviewing subfield using satirical imitation. She took the common video trope known as a "haul" and reversed it. Instead of listing and celebrating products she bought or received (i.e., "hauled") Clark used the same moves to critique products that she is "not going to buy." Celebrated imitation and satire hook into common threads of plagiarism conversations, but I find more interesting a specific argument Clark proffered after her series started earning its own imitators. During the introduction to her fourteenth antihaul video, she staked out her position on Internet authorship and ownership, a position that interweaves multiple assumptions about authorship and writing (2016). I highlight the various theories of authorship underlining her claims below:

Hey y’all it’s me, Kimberly Clark and welcome to this, my 14th anti-haul video, aka, what I’m not going to buy! [sung: What I’m not going to buy.]I should learn, I should learn Jackie Aina’s song she made. Hey girl! Hey, Jackie. Thank you for doing an anti-haul video. Thank you for making a song.If you’re going to do an anti-haul video, you gotta make a song! No, just kidding.
I just want to say thank you so much to everyone out there that has picked up this torch.I love seeing the trend of anti-consumerism spreading amongst the Internet.I’m deeply honored that such amazing YouTubers like Jackie Aina and the Jessica and JAMBeauty and, you know, all my faves, that you are all doing these videos, and you’re giving me a little shout-out. That’s so adorable; thank you so much. I really appreciate it.Honestly, though, I’m more excited that this is catching on. Not because it’s, you know, throwing views back to me, but because anti-consumerism, I think, is the future. I think I just created a specific form.The trend has been there; it’s existed;people like Reverend Billy have been doing this shit for years. Gotta love him. You know, but I just love it. I’m just part of it. I’m just part of this bigger movement. I love it. If you want to do an anti-haul video, don’t worry about crediting me; I don’t care. I just love that more and more people are thinking more intelligently about consumerism.

In this introduction, Clark staked out a position acknowledging multiple views about authorship and ownership of writing before ultimately defining her own position—one that values message circulation over authorial credit. In some places she enacted courtesy citation, as Mick Doherty (1998) put it in the original Kairos special issue on “Copywrite, Plagiarism, and Intellectual Property,” naming what we might understand as a universal principle of giving credit. Clark also invokes claims to ownership and originality over this particular idea for enacting anti-consumerism while acknowledging her videos' form expression of an already existing theme. However, Clark’s position primarily aligns with the theory that writing is situated. Here, her approach to citation aligns with the "Internet as samiszdat" view, advanced by David Porush (1998) in the Kairos special issue. To explain this view, Porush gives an example of his own work’s unattributed circulation from a listserv to someone else’s book. He acknowledges harboring an unsurprising initial position of anger but then gently undermines it: “As teacher, too, I call into question my ownership. Where did my ideas come from? My teachers, and the books I read. Where are they going? Out to the public.” He concludes we should prioritize “the value and capital reaped by viewing knowledge as collective, anonymous, shared, open, and as a holy route to wisdom about the ultimate unknowability of the universe.” When Clark proclaims, “If you want to do an anti-haul without crediting me; I don’t care. I just love that more and more people are thinking intelligently about consumerism,” she advances Porush’s model of circulation over credit, one Linda Adler-Kassner, Chris Anson, and Rebecca Moore Howard's (2008) study found commonly at work among informational Internet texts.

Adler-Kassner, Anson, and Howard (2008) further argue that writing scholars can learn much by analyzing how news media frame student-centered “plagiarism scandals.” News frames, they posit, reveal and perpetuate the commonplace theories of authorship that circulate within the American public imagination, and knowledge of these can help scholars and teachers better engage in the public debates about writing instruction. And both Jessica Litman (2008) and Stephanie Roach (2017) claimed that attending to non-student cases can also reveal commonplace theories of authorship. Litman reviewed metaphors used in copyright debates; Roach turned to the alleged plagiarism case of Neil Gorsuch and showed how responses rejecting the plagiarism charge worked in part by evoking a theory of authorship where intellectual work and ownership is limited to ideas; composing text is something other—not truly important and not truly owned.

In other words, plagiarism cases involving public figures can make present the multiple theories of writing in circulation. Arguments might advance whatever is useful rather than deeply considered and consistently applied, but such is the double-edged nature of rhetoric. I do not argue that public plagiarism cases offer cases of careful deliberation or require people to rethink their views on writing; I cannot idealize the examples I drew on here or have seen elsewhere. As attempts for substantial and careful public deliberation, they often fail.

But this is not the only measure that matters. As Patricia Roberts-Miller (2009) argued, eloquent argument is not the only form of rhetorical discourse that merits study; her example of Internet comments can reveal how everyday persuasion works. Rather than means for generating good debate, I see public figure plagiarism cases illustrating the breadth of possible views about writing, authorship, and ownership in circulation, views that are more often held tacitly. Whether responding to YouTube trends or Supreme Court nominations, public cases of plagiarism compel argument about writing and authorship outside the academic realm. And so public plagiarism arguments can make explicit what are usually tacitly held theories about these complex topics. Recognizing what views circulate, however informally, can help those advocating for writing education better anticipate audience assumptions about authorship and composition.



Analyzing public, rather than student, cases of plagiarism allows scholars to chart how the public imagines authorship and writing in general. Such analysis also brings to light possible assumptions and definitions that underwrite views on pressing policy issues, such as educational priorities and funding. The cases within my study showed much overlap in terms of argument patterns and assumptions about writing. I found six theories of writing predominated:

Circulating Theories of Writing

Writing is Situated sees discourse communities as setting citation norms; insiders and plagiarizers judge best; professional standing refutes plagiarism.

Writing Requires Work assumes all writing requires intellectual labor (Roach, 2017) and so all writing deserves source-crediting; the writing process is difficult.

Writing Means Ideas takes up the solitary genius definition of writing, where novel ideas and original arguments matter and boilerplate language or facts do not.

Some of Writing is Universal argues some writing principles, e.g., giving credit, apply to all situations; college teaching and plagiarism policies serve as general benchmarks.

Writing Reflects Character views the act of writing as inherently ethical; intention matters, and writing decisions reflect one's overall character.

Writing Means Expression all work is intertextual, so the form and language used to convey ideas is what matters; reworking ideas is fair use.

Some of the theories undercovered aligned with previous work. Debates hinging on whether writing means original ideas or original expression shows public figures and non-fiction writers struggle with the same questions raised in literary plagiarism studies (e.g., Randall, 2001). The prevalence of arguments grounded in a view of writing as situated suggests the field of Writing Studies has inculcated much of the public with this threshold concept. And the ready reliance on college plagiarism policies suggest a general faith in the training provided by college writing classes. The arguments also offer a new way of conceiving these contested documents; they might have a role in public debate, not just campus policy. The widening stakes provides further reason for scholars and teachers of writing to engage with them. On the other hand, the limited respect for the labor involved in writing points to an area needing more work by the field. Without public acknowledgement that writing takes work, many arguments supporting writing education falter. Lastly, I see the sense that plagiarism charges damage one's moral character, and not just one's professional ethos, also raises some opportunities for connecting classical theories of rhetoric to contemporary beliefs about writing. Such a commonplace might provide grounds for writing classrooms dedicated to civic ends rather than professionalization.

Variation also occurred, and each case raised different questions about plagiarism. Each might foster a different kind of classroom discussion or serve as a teaching moment. Clark's speech provided a live example of how public information purposes overrule credit-seeking. Bialosky's case showed how even experts run into trouble when working with tertiary sources, and it illustrated how we can inherently rank types of writing. Arguments around the Gorsuch accusation emphasized the role of situated norms and genre expectations. Crowley's showed how we frequently link one's character to one's writing. By understanding what lay audiences might assume about writing can help prepare responsive policy arguments or initiate needed discussions in the classroom.

To explore each case individually, follow the links in the navigation above. Find a synopsis of the cases and resulting theories of writing on the Codex page, also linked in the navigation above.