Notes on Plagiarism

William Jamison - Instructor

What is plagiarism?  Trying to pass someone else's work off as your own might be a good enough definition. The trouble begins when you try to pass any work off as your own when you feel like everything you know came either entirely or in pieces from other people.

So we have some conventions we use in our work. We can quote from a source. "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

We can even quote at length:

"As its subtitle implies, Albion is not so much a history as a meditation on beginnings. We don't even get within spitting distance of the 20th century here, let alone the present day. Instead, Ackroyd half plods, half swoons his way through the canon of classic literature, from the 8th-century Beowulf to the Romantic poets, and tries to illuminate eternal echoes. 'There is no progress in English writing but rather, a perpetual return to the original sources of inspiration', he declares early on, using the image of a circle to start and finish his narrative. As ever, his approach rests heavily on the legacy of the past, and shows how there really is nothing new under the sun. 'Instead of asking what is "modern" about the Anglo-Saxons', he tells us, we should really inquire 'what is Anglo-Saxon about "the modern"'." ("Englands Dreaming" Jerome Boyd-Maunsell on Peter Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination)

Or we can rephrase something in "our own words." Then the appropriate footnotes or end notes can be made. Here is how this issue is addressed in the preface to the book The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann (Paperback - July 1967)  p. vi:

"Ibn ul-'Arabi, the great Islamic mystic, exclaims in one of his poems-"Deliver us, oh Allah, from the sea of names!" We have often repeated this exclamation in our own readings in sociological theory. We have, in consequence, decided to eliminate all names from our actual argument. The latter can now be read as one continuous presentation of our own position, without the constant intrusion of such observations as "Durkheim says this," "Weber says that," "We agree here with Durkheim but not with Weber," "We think that Durkheim has been misinterpreted on this point," and so forth. That our position has not sprung up ex nihilo is obvious on each page, but we want it to be judged on its own merits, not in terms of its exegetical or synthesizing aspects. We have, therefore, placed all references in the Notes, as well as (though always briefly) any arguments we have with the sources to which we are indebted. This has necessitated a sizable apparatus of notes. This is not to pay obeisance to the rituals of Wissenschaftlichkeit, but rather to be faithful to the demands of historical gratitude."

The point being, that even when you use someone's ideas, even using your own words to rephrase what you say, the appropriate reference must be made somehow to the source of those ideas.

But, you might ask, "If all my ideas come from some one else and I am just mixing them up into my ideas, when can I ever write without trying to pin the blame for them on someone else?" At what point does an idea become our own? When has an idea been around long enough that we don't refer to the source when we use it, but consider it common knowledge? Should I use my own lack of memory about where I got an idea as permission to think I thought the idea up myself? At least, if I can't remember where the idea came from, how can I refer to the source?

The issue becomes even more complicated when we think about the nature of creativity in much of its forms today. I like to point out that you can use this web page: and fill in the url of a page on the web and select a "dialect" and the web page will appear transformed into the dialect of your choice. For example, the paragraph above this one run through red neck becomes:

"But, yo' might ax, "Eff'n all mah ideas come fum some one else an' ah's jest mixin' them up into mah ideas, when kin ah evah write wifout tryin' t'pin th' blame fo' them on someone else?" At whut point does an idea become our own? When has an idea been aroun' long inough thet we doesn't refer t'th' source when we use it, but cornsider it common smarts? Sh'd ah use mah own lack of memo'y about whar ah got an idea as permisshun t'reckon ah thunk th' idea up mahse'f? At least, eff'n ah cain't remember whar th' idea came fum, how kin ah refer t'th' source?"

If I were to simply copy from a web page without referring to the source everyone would readily agree that was plagiarism. But what if "my work" now is modified by my using a tool to change it? Has it become my work now? I think most people would still feel this was not my work. So let's muddy the water still a bit more.

Visit this page:

Each time you visit that page a brand new paper on a postmodern topic is created complete with references.

For example, just now I have visited this page and a brand new paper was generated including the following quotation:

"1. Foucaultist power relations and the neotextual paradigm of discourse

In the works of Fellini, a predominant concept is the distinction between within and without. The subject is interpolated into a cultural subdeconstructivist theory that includes narrativity as a paradox. It could be said that Sartre suggests the use of semiotic desituationism to challenge the status quo.

"Class is part of the fatal flaw of truth," says Foucault. De Selby[1] implies that the works of Fellini are not postmodern. In a sense, any number of deappropriations concerning cultural subdeconstructivist theory exist.

In the works of Fellini, a predominant concept is the concept of capitalist art. Sontag's model of the neotextual paradigm of discourse suggests that discourse comes from the collective unconscious, given that the premise of presemioticist cultural theory is invalid. However, the subject is contextualised into a semiotic desituationism that includes narrativity as a whole.

"Sexuality is used in the service of sexism," says Foucault. Bataille's essay on the neotextual paradigm of discourse holds that class, perhaps paradoxically, has intrinsic meaning. But Derrida promotes the use of Debordist situation to read sexual identity."

(End of quote from the postmodern generator.)

This is brand new material. No one wrote it. It was generated by the algorithm. (Please don't ask me how it works.) Can I properly claim this paper as "my own"? Again, most students would say no. But now try this: either put the url for the postmodern generator into the dialectizer or select some of the paper already generated from the postmodern generator and run it through the dialectizer.

For example, the bit of the paper above now run through red neck comes out:

"1. Foucaultist power relashuns an' th' neotextual pareedigm of discourse In th' wawks of Fellini, a predominant corncepp is th' distinckshun between wifin an' wifout. Th' subjeck is interpolated into a cultural subdeconstruckivist theo'y thet includes narrativity as a pareedox. It c'd be said thet Sartre suggests th' use of semiotic desituashunism t'challenge th' status quo. "Class is part of th' fatal flaw of truth," says Foucault. De Selby[1] implies thet th' wawks of Fellini is not postmodern, as enny fool kin plainly see. In a sense, enny number of deappropriashuns corncernin' cultural subdeconstruckivist theo'y exist. In th' wawks of Fellini, a predominant corncepp is th' concepp of capitalist art. Sontag's model of th' neotextual pareedigm of discourse suggests thet discourse comes fum th' colleckive unconscious, given thet th' premise of presemioticist cultural theo'y is invalid, cuss it all t' tarnation. Howevah, th' subjeck is corntextualised into a semiotic desituashunism thet includes narrativity as a whole. "Sexuality is used in th' service of sexism," says Foucault. Bataille's essay on th' neotextual pareedigm of discourse holds thet class, perhaps pareedoxically, has intrinsic meanin'. But Derrida promotes th' use of Debo'dist situashun t'read sexual identity."

Hopefully, by this point, you are getting a good laugh out of all of this, the same as I am. But now a certain amount of creativity -- my creativity using the tools others have made -- has gone into the development of the piece. Is it my work? Can I be proud of what I have made? I can guarantee you will not find it anywhere else. This may appear to be a unique example, but recently an NPR special described a young man who created an algorithm that you can use to create your own music using the downloaded music of others. The end result is a "song" that consists of bits of MP3s from the web mish mashed together to form something new. How you set up the elements of the algorithm determines how the song works.

Software developers used to write their own code. Now programs offer ready made applets that can be selected to put a program together. In short, the new work is a mish mash of other programmers' work. Yet in this case, the new work is considered original.

Consider movies and music and other products and notice that the artists and authors that are most successful seem to be those that make the best use of the work of other people in creating new work. Creativity has become a matter of ingeniously rearranging the work of others.

So what about work written for school assignments?

In my classes I have had many occasions when students have copied material from the Internet and pasted it into their essays as though it was their own work. This is plagiarism. It is also easy for me to notice. People have a pattern in their writing that is much like the pattern in their speech. When you read enough papers the difference in pattern leaps off the page at you. To check a section of an essay is easy. It probably takes less time for me to find where it came from than it took for the student to find it in the first place. Some students have defended plagiarized work by asking, "How else am I supposed to come up with 3,000 words?" My answer is that I will give the grade to the person who wrote the words and the student gets an F for not knowing any better.

Still other students have copied work from other students. One student has even copied all of their work from another student that took the same course less than one year ago! This is plagiarism and may even get the student whose work was copied in trouble if it is clear the student knew about it.

Why would a student do this?

I would encourage students to show one another their work, discuss it, argue over it, and so on. Even if a student were to make use of someone else's ideas, as long as they were to say something like, "My friend thought such and such, but I would say this and that." That would not only be acceptable to me but it would be great! Imagine students getting really into these issues and discussing them -- wouldn't that be every teacher's dream -- and good for the students?

But when a student copies someone's work and presents it as their own, then they are not going through the learning experience that is supposed to happen when they take the course. They are cheating themselves. I could give such a person an A and care less -- I still get paid for teaching the class. So who is being cheated? The student is cheating themselves. It is worse than buying a pizza and not eating it because the experience of going through the readings and thinking them through changes a person. Imagine cheating your way through a French course and getting an A. Then you go to France and do not understand one word anyone says to you. What a waste. Why would philosophy be any different? I would even argue that it is worse, because French may only be useful in France. Philosophy is with you even when you sit on a toilet and read the graffiti! (Sorry, but that is what first occurred to me!)

But I am also concerned about keeping our university the great institution it is and blatant cheating would tear it apart. How would it be better than buying a $5 diploma on the Internet? (Those are not worth it. I printed off a free certificate describing me as an ordained minister  just for fun and my wife still has not called me "Reverend"! Plus the spam I get from that is a mess.)

Taking a course through the web is especially prone to this problem. That is one reason why I have all my students work on a computer and I can cross check anything I find suspicious.

So I argue that if a student feels what they read says perfectly what they want to say or they can't say it any better, then they should quote the piece. They should not hesitate to have lots of quotations in their essays or papers. That is what research is all about -- finding material and telling others about it. But they should not do research and then pretend they are the source of that information! If they write when a philosopher was born, unless they were there when she was born, then the information has to be from a source. So they should indicate the source! If they get an idea from reading something, they should be proud of the source that gave them that idea. Listing lots of sources means they did lots of research. Writing what they think without doing research might also be good, but the more research they do the more they have to think about. Practice makes better.

See and read Student Code of Conduct for UAA policy on plagiarism and associated issues.

The Myths of Innovation


Please email me with any comments you might have.


This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated July 11, 2016. All links on these pages are either to open source or public domain materials or they are marked with the appropriate copyright information. I frequently check the links I have made to other web sites but each source is responsible for their own content.