Plagiarism and Fraud: A Writers’ Doping Scandal

Recent high-profile instances of plagiarism reflect — and possibly are a cause of — a rise in such activity among college students. The cut-and-paste culture of the Internet is also a factor.
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Youngsters emulate their heroes. That’s one reason the issue of steroid use by professional athletes worries even non-fans. If high-profile professional players take performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge on the competition, a number of ambitious aspiring athletes will surely do the same.

While it has gotten far less media attention, this disturbing dynamic also applies to kids looking to get ahead academically. When superstars of the publishing world are revealed as plagiarists or discovered to have fictionalized their purportedly nonfiction works, some students are tempted to take similar shortcuts.

“That’s their justification, explanation, rationalization,” said Donald McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University who regularly surveys college students on ethical issues. “They use these (highly publicized) examples to make their actions seem trivial: ‘If these guys are getting away with it, what’s the big deal if I do a little bit of it?’

“What’s going on in the larger society,” he added, “is filtering down to the schools.”

If McCabe is correct, teachers had better be on guard this coming semester: The news media in recent weeks has been filled with reports of unethical behavior on the part of successful writers. Tim Goeglein, a senior official in the Bush White House, resigned after admitting he copied other people’s work and used it in columns he wrote for an Indiana newspaper. Margaret Seltzer, author of a critically acclaimed memoir about growing up in gang-dominated South Central Los Angeles, admitted her book was essentially a fraud.

In the presidential campaign, Sen. Hillary Clinton accused Sen. Barack Obama of plagiarism for using words very similar to those of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. In academia, the dean of the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University was widely suspected of inventing favorable comments about one of his initiatives — direct quotes that supposedly came from a student — for an alumni publication.

In recent years, we’ve also had high-profile plagiarism cases featuring best-selling historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. And in the passing-off-fiction-as-fact front, who can forget the exploits of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair or the discredited memoirist James Frey?

So is there more plagiarizing going on than in previous eras? Or are plagiarists more likely to get caught?

“I haven’t done a systematic study, but my sense is this explosion of hoax books — ‘memoirs’ that should have been novels — is new,” said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “The number of these has increased radically in the past couple of years.

“I think as far as students are concerned, my sense is there is more plagiarism. How much of it is deliberate and planned — I’m not sure that percentage has increased radically.”

Her hunch is in line with McCabe’s surveys, which suggest that while the amount of plagiarized material being turned in is increasing substantially, the percentage of students who plagiarize has risen only marginally in recent years — perhaps 5 to 10 percent.

“A slightly larger number of students are doing it a lot more often,” he said. “Once you cross that line, it’s so easy to keep on doing it.”

The reason it is so easy is, of course, the Internet. Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, sounded almost nostalgic as he talked about how much more challenging it was to plagiarize material in the past.

“We used to have to go to the library and work our way through stacks of periodicals, or microfilm or microfiche, in order to read someone else’s material,” he said. “We’d have to copy it laboriously by longhand or copy it on a copying machine.”

No more. Now inserting someone else’s words into your own copy is as simple as click, cut and paste.

Of course, the Internet has also made it easier to identify plagiarism. Goeglein’s uncredited borrowings were uncovered by a suspicious blogger who conducted a simple Internet search.

“Students talk about that, but a large number of them figure they can beat the system,” McCabe said. “Some have said to me on surveys, ‘Ever since the school went to turnitin.com (a Web site that alerts teachers when material has been previously published), we can’t do this any more.’ Others will say, ‘We’ve had to find new ways.’ If you change enough words, turnitin.com won’t pick it up. It’s not rocket science to figure that out.

“Some students like the confidence of knowing they got their information from a legitimate source, and it’s fundamentally correct — even if they have to rework some of the words.”

At what point does rewriting become your own work? “It’s a blurry line for students; that’s for sure,” McCabe said. “I asked what changes they’d like to see in their school’s academic integrity policy, and one of the more frequent responses is ‘education in plagiarism’ — what it is, how to avoid it.”

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In some cases, he added, such professions of ignorance are probably excuses. But the Poynter Institute’s Steele contends the issue is indeed not as clear-cut as some believe.

“I think there is great peril in any of us saying, ‘It’s very clear what plagiarism is. Don’t do it,’” he said. “Clearly, we should not steal the material of others and claim it to be ours. That’s one element of plagiarism. But I think it’s more complex than that.

“You must deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis, but there are guiding principles, such as honesty and fairness and accuracy. We must be honest about what we claim is our own material. We must be fair to others who have written something unique or special. We must properly and precisely attribute information.”

All that attribution, of course, can get in the way of writing dramatic, compelling copy — the sort of prose that readers enjoy and editors often demand. Kirtley has heard that justification, but she doesn’t buy it.

“It has become fashionable to refer to journalistic-type writing as ‘storytelling,’” she said. “Some young people feel that embellishment and fictionalization, added to make the story better, is OK, so long as it doesn’t detract from the core message.

“My answer is, if you want to be a novelist, go ahead, but don’t tell me this is journalism. If you’re looking for vividness of detail, I’m afraid you’re going to get out of your office and go to the place (you’re writing about) and see it in person!”

Kirtley admits that traditional definitions of plagiarism “seem somewhat arbitrary” to many of today’s college students, who grew up on what Stuart Selber of Penn State University and Johndan Johnson-Eilola of Clarkson University call “the remix culture.” They discuss changing notions of plagiarism, originality and assemblage in a paper recently published in the journal Computers and Composition.

“Students don’t think twice about grabbing, integrating and remixing,” said Selber, an associate professor of English and science, technology and society. “Their computer does that for them automatically. All these streams are coming in.”

To members of this generation, creativity often means “taking something old and putting it in a new context,” such as a remixed piece of music or a video mash-up, he noted. Inevitably, he added, that sensibility informs their approach to writing prose.

“We discuss (in class) the differences between quoting, summarizing and paraphrasing,” Selber said. “But we don’t really talk about how to build on other people’s ideas in a productive, ethical way. There’s an ethical component (to this evolving discussion) that has less to do with policing originality and more to do with acknowledging others people’s intellectual labor.”

Kirtley seconds that point. “I don’t think there’s a problem if you take six classic movies and mash them together to make a satirical study of film noir,” since it’s clear what your source material is, she said. “I feel the same way about a paper that is derived from a variety of sources. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using another scholar’s ideas, as long as you attribute them. To me, it’s a transparency issue.”

That familiar phrase from the campaign trail brings up the Obama speech and the fact that the plagiarism charge Mrs. Clinton lobbed at him quickly fizzled. Kirtley isn’t surprised.

“For me the issue turned on whether he was using the words of this individual with his knowledge and consent, which it appears he was,” she said. “Plagiarism to me suggests you are stealing somebody’s stuff without their knowledge. Would it be better to drop a footnote and say, ‘This is what Deval said?’ Of course it would. But that’s a lot lower on the scale of sins than a lot of the other things we are talking about.”

Selber expressed a similar thought. He noted that some authors are now openly allowing others to reuse and build upon their work as part of an assemblage. But they can only do so if they follow the guidelines set by the original author — which, in almost all cases, means attribution.

Even in a postmodern academic culture, “It’s wrong to take other people’s work, put your own name on it and turn it in as your own work,” he said. “There is such a thing as stealing.”

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