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Defintion of plagiarism continue to plague academic community

July 2nd, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I have been writing a fairly boring report today, and as a distraction, reading more of my Twitter  messages than usually. And on of them, I cannot remember why, directed me to the Times Higher Education web site. And I noticed an article about plagiarism.

The article is pretty routine. It reports on a study in Sweden which “found that when a problem was identified, academics were reluctant to label it plagiarism, instead choosing words such as “unacceptable”.

“The staff held extremely heterogeneous views about the examples and also had different explanations for those views. No two lecturers gave the same response,” Dr Pecorari said.”

The article goes on to say: “But the different explanations given by participants in the study for finding, or failing to find, plagiarism also exposed a lack of common understanding, she argued.

In a bid to address the problem, academics in the US are attempting to draw up an international definition of plagiarism. Speaking at the conference, Teresa Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University in South Carolina, set out a model definition.

It rules that plagiarism occurs if an author “uses words, ideas or work products, attributable to an identifiable person or source, without attributing the work to the source from which it was obtained, in a situation in which there was a legitimate expectation of original authorship, in order to obtain benefit, credit or gain.”

Dr Fishman said that plagiarism was not theft, copyright infringement or fraud, and should not be confused with poor citation skills.”

A find this fascinating at a whole series of levels. I have always argued that the meaning of plagiarism is culturally and socially derived and changes over time. And just agreeing a common definition does not overcome the different cultural meanings associated with it. Indeed, in line with Jenny Hughes work on pragmatics and semantics and featured on this blog over the last two weeks, it is not so much the paradigm of plagiarism that we should be looking at to understand its meaning but the syntagmatic relations between say, the idea of  plagiarism, ideas of tecahing and learning and especially concepts of copyright. And this is confirmed as an academic catfight breaks out in the comments.. To give a flavour:

“The position of some “experts” on plagiarism directly contravenes the law, contravenes the accepted university rules and even their own words”

“What makes some “experts” on plagiarism to falsify what the law of plagiarism and the universally accepted rules of academia actually say?”

“surely that shows that views on plagiarism are culturally contingent and academics in one country drawing up an “international definition” is an inherently flawed idea?”

“if your undergraduates are so incapable of ‘original authorship’ that they cannot even summarise others’ work competently without copying it out, you are royally screwed.”

“Dr. Fishman, that plagiarism ITSELF constitutes a fraud, has been explained and confirmed uncountable number of times and included in academic policies. If you are making a point to deny this, you have to have a novel reason for this. May I ask you to say what this reason is?”

And so on. It is all very polite but it is clear that we cannot define plagiarism without understanding the cultural and social background to the idea itself. Lets face it, if plagiarism (and present day copyright laws, had been around in the times of Shakespeare, his plays would never have been performed or published.

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