Plagiarism is more than a dirty word. It is an emotionally charged four syllables which often signal the end of a career, an education, a reputation. It carries enormous insinuation against the integrity of the person against whom it is levied. It is a devastating charge that carries the moral equivalent in literary judgment that child molestation carries in the nonliterary world. It is the single, most assured way to be expelled from a university, whether as a student or a tenured professor. And it is so serious an offense to a university, that even years after being awarded a degree – including a doctorate – a university will strip its alumni of that award should the accusation of plagiarism arise and hold weight. This happened to Hungarian President Pal Schmitt who according to abcnews.go.com resigned Monday after having his 1992 doctorate on the Olympics rescinded by Semmelweis University.
What exactly is plagiarism, and how can one word be so powerful as to bring down a country’s sitting president?
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (http://www.plagiarism.org/plag_article_what_is_plagiarism.html) defines an act of plagiarism as:
- The stealing and ‘passing off’ the ideas or words of another as one's own
- The use of someone’s work/production without crediting the source
- The committing of literary theft
- The presentation of an idea or product derived from an existing source as new and original
- Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
- Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
- Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
- Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not
This is the same definition commonly used by universities as listed In their honor codes, and which if violated, will result in immediate expulsion and retraction of any degree allegedly awarded as a direct result of it. But paradoxically, in almost all cases, the definition contains shades of gray which many find difficult to navigate. For example, what constitutes plagiarism of an idea?
Defining Original Thought for Writers
When an idea constitutes intellectual property, it is protected by copyright law. But when is an idea intellectual property? The book industry seems ideal for this discussion; many writers and readers wonder just how many books on vampires in New Orleans can be justifiably original, or how many get-rich-quick-by-flipping -real estate books, or even how-to-blog books. At what point does an idea gain traction as intellectual property?
This is not an easy question to answer. But the answer is: if an assumption or thesis is made, then research will tell if the idea is original – not the fact that you woke at midnight with the brainstorm. Original ideas are truly rare. Thinking of an idea that comes unaided is only original to you; if you find even one source repeating that idea, you must cite it. Originality is gone: poof!
Originality then may also mean not the idea itself, but how the idea is represented. Take the vampire book issue: Anne Rice started the sympathetic characterization of the vampire by introducing us to gay and bi-sexual vampires in New Orleans. The next author introduces straight vampires in New Orleans. Then female vampires in New Orleans are trotted out, followed by teen vampires in New Orleans. All, alas, original. But a new author will get rejected for writing another similar novel with New Orleans vampires if there is not something significantly original being added to the recipe of the vampire mythos. In other words, the defining theme of the book leads the originality factor. The details…well, not so much. If you doubt me, visit the YA cum Vampire Section in your local bookstore…
Context is Everything
Countries/cultures matter. Not every culture thinks similarly on the need for crediting sources (http://owl.english.purdue.edu). For example, the United States is one country that places heavy cultural emphasis on crediting sources; this is not because of any moral superiority factor, but rather because we are a capitalist society which in turn begets a certain loyalty to the idea that one should be properly credited and compensated for the act of invention. This does not absolve us of guilt or responsibility for cases in which plagiarism happens anyway, it is simply a national more, an aspiration. Those who have different cultural values may not be intentionally committing plagiarism, or may commit it simply due to a cultural unawareness, but regardless they will collide disastrously with strict interpretations of the term.
Purpose of the work matters. Incredibly, there is more latitudinal difference in how a work is to be used.
· For academics-to-academic works, there is zero latitude. An academic (above all) is expected to know, understand, and adequately credit all work/research cited. Failure to properly reference is reputational and career suicide (http://owl.english.purdue.edu ).
· For student-to-academic work it varies: a high school student will be warned and given further explanation as part of instruction because this is base-line learning. A university student is expected to both know and be learning how /when to properly credit sources, exhibiting proper attention to the attempt to cite sources correctly in the relevant academic style; solid attempts at proper citation typically receive further guidance where failing to acknowledge that an attempt was warranted risks that student’s continuation at the university. Intentional acts are met with zero tolerance and expulsion (http://owl.english.purdue.edu ).
· Technical writing products such as “organizational texts” and/or manuals, instructions, textbooks, etc. tend to be viewed as exempt in the name of conciseness and accessibility (https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:3oSxBLRvG78J:www.wadsworth.com/english_d/special_features/plagiarism/WPAplagiarism.pdf). Yet certain web-based content such as the “readability function of mobile devices” (http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2012/04/02/readability-copyright-ongoing-struggle-for-tech/) are toeing a dangerous and disputed line. These tend to remain in a kind of accepted public domain at least for the time being. However, the mood here is beginning to change, and the issue bears a healthy measure of due vigilance.
· Professions may also differ – a point evident to those writing across the curriculum in university settings (http://owl.english.purdue.edu ). On one extreme are the scientists, who document every syllable of their papers as they build new research upon the foundations of previous research; in the middle are the humanities, which by their nature encourage original expression of published research and so serve as a middle ground in writing new nuances on older ideas; then there are those in the business disciplines, which tend to not place as much emphasis on documentation except in the areas of statistics (a science).
· Technology is still the Wild West. Musicians, writers and gamers face their own creative content issues, especially in the online environment. As technology advances offering more and more opportunity to publish one’s own work, both the protection of that work and its obligation to credit other sources where due is of growing concern in web standards as well as in the area of personal liability (www.plagiarismtoday.com).
So where does that leave writers? The answer is, it leaves you where it has always left you. You are responsible for what you write and where you get your ideas. It is your job to understand when you need to credit a source and your responsibility to do it and do it properly. There will be no acceptable exceptions made or excuses permitted. It is your reputation on the line; it is no one else’s responsibility to teach you or protect you. You have the responsibility to be proactive.
This is something that Hungarian President Schmidt understood implicitly, at least in hindsight when a university committee found that “most of his thesis had been copied from two other authors” (http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/hungarys-president-resigns-plagiarism-16053044). Although the article goes on to say that “During most of his speech Monday, Schmitt defended his doctorate and said he would appeal its revocation at the university and, if needed, in the courts”… that "This is a matter of honor, and my conscience is clear," Schmitt added that he would step down as Hungary’s President because “When my personal issue divides my beloved nation instead of uniting it, I feel it to be my personal duty to finish my service and resign.” It is a sign that Schmitt is not bereft of scruples, and might otherwise be a “stand up kind of guy.” And while it does not excuse his academic behavior, one has to admit that there may be some extenuating circumstances that led Schmitt and leads many like him to think that they are innocent of plagiarism because they did not intend it and the hideous lack of integrity it implies.
The lesson is this: there may be times when plagiarism is believed to be inadvertently or innocently contrived, but it will be severely and publicly punished on discovery. This is a large price to pay when www.plagiarism.org states: “Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided… by citing sources. Simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed, and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source, is usually enough to prevent plagiarism.”
A lesson learned the hard way in this case… and undoubtedly a reminder for us all.