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Whose Words Are These? Whose Words Are These?

Whose Words Are These?

by Anne Trubek

March 6, 2010

There are so many different definitions of plagiarism-and so much written about it-that it can be hard to separate original writing from things you've read before. For example....


Plagiarism, as defined in the 1995 Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary, is the "use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work." Within academia, plagiarism by students, professors, or researchers is considered academic dishonesty or academic fraud and offenders are subject to academic censure, up to and including expulsion. In journalism, plagiarism is considered a breach of journalistic ethics, and reporters caught plagiarizing typically face disciplinary measures ranging from suspension to termination of employment. Some individuals caught plagiarizing in academic or journalistic contexts claim that they plagiarized unintentionally, by failing to include quotations or give the appropriate citation. While plagiarism in scholarship and journalism has a centuries-old history, the development of the Internet, where articles appear as electronic text, has made the physical act of copying the work of others much easier.

Plagiarism in the information age is not always a cut and dry issue.

A current study in Canada indicates that one in three college undergraduates plagiarizes.

Among students in grades 7-12, 21% have turned in a paper downloaded from the Internet. More than a third (38%) copied text from a website.

Recent plagiarism accusations against the 17-year-old author of a German novel feel like déjà vu all over again, with one key distinction: Helene Hegemann, who wrote the best-selling tale of drugging and clubbing, "Axolotl Roadkill," is defending the practice, telling one German newspaper, "I myself don't feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me."

Unlike Gerald Posner, who recently used the never-believable argument that he could not recall lifting sentences for a Daily Beast column, Hegemann merely regretted not having acknowledged all the contributors.

Hegemann lifted as much as a full page of text from an obscure, independently published novel, "Strobo," by a blogger known as Airen. Another German blogger, Deef Pirmasens, was the first to point out the passages from "Axolotl Roadkill" that are said to be largely duplicated from "Strobo," with small changes. Despite the uproar caused by this revelation, "Axolotl Roadkill" has been selling better than ever and has been nominated for the $20,000 fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.

A child of a media-saturated generation, she presented herself as a writer whose birthright is the remix, the use of anything at hand she feels suits her purposes, an idea of communal creativity that certainly wasn't shared by those from whom she borrowed. In a line that might have been stolen from Sartre (it wasn't) she added: "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity."

(Jim Jarmusch, incidentally, said virtually the same thing, and he probably got it from somebody else.)

Hegemann's statement isn't so much morally wrong as it is vague and content-free and dumb. I don't know German, but I do know that appealing to some nebulous higher "authenticity" is the go-to defense of the intellectually lazy faker. A truly creative word-thief could at least come up with entertaining excuse, but to redefine truth as "whatever I choose it to mean" (Lewis Carroll - see how easy citing is?) just turns language into a gross mixed-up soup of lies. Also, the "different generation" excuse for anything teenagers do isn't as repugnant as Emmanuelle Seigner's "crazy time" excuse for Roman Polanski, but it's just as stupid. I know plenty of "millennials," and they don't all have iPods for fingers and MySpace for brains.

One of the issues here is just the degree that the copy-and-paste function has become second nature to journalists and students (and really everyone) when it comes to collecting and synthesizing information found online. In preparing to write this post, for instance, my notes comprised of copied and pasted fragments from articles printed in other publications, statistics from a Common Sense Media survey on teens using technology to cheat and several excerpts from previous Ypulse posts on the topic. From there, rest assured, I responded in my own words and properly cited and linked all of the material above, but it is easy to see where practices like this would lead to a journalist under great pressure and tight deadlines tempted to make a questionable judgment call like Gerald Posner. And while the straight up copying of passages is a pretty clear ethical violation, with more and more bloggers learning "on the job" instead of at traditional journalism schools, it's episodes like these that point to a pressing need to develop and publicize a set of standard new media guidelines that bloggers can be held to, and that high school and college journalism classes could be taught in order to prevent these type of quibbles in the future.

American author Jonathan Lethem delivered a passionate defense of plagiarism in his 2007 essay "The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism" in Harper's. He wrote: "The kernel, the soul-let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances-is plagiarism" and "Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you."

Yes, everything in this piece was plagiarized from other pieces about plagiarism. The hyperlinks are our attribution.

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