On Plagiarism

My wife and I often joke that a sign of our ultimate compatibility is that our longest, most protracted, knock-down-drag-out fights have always been about copyright. Nothing specific about the topic lends us to feel this way, but rather that out of all the things to get in a tiff with one’s spouse about (neither of us are lawyers), that’s the one? I usually occupied the anti- side and she the pro-, although over time we’ve more or less dropped the argument because it stopped being all that interesting to fight over after a certain point.

This is a preamble to say: over the past few days, my cop shit post has made the rounds again on Twitter and a few other venues as well. Reception’s mostly positive, which is nice to see, although of course you can’t please everyone. One part in particular seems to have been a sticking point for some folks, and I wanted to elaborate on it a bit in turn here on the blog. The part in question: why is plagiarism detection software cop shit?

I have a two-part response, the first on plagiarism and the second on plagiarism detection software. I should say that my perspective here is primarily as a college instructor who teaches classes in writing and media studies. My students write papers, make videos, do small creative coding projects, and generally get to mess around and have a good time. It’s pretty hard to plagiarize in my classes. I concede that the landscape looks very different for folks who teach K-12 or non-humanities subjects. Still, I think that some of my basic arguments here apply, and I invite further refinement from folks in those areas of expertise.

Plagiarism has always interested me in that it is the closest thing that education has to a mortal sin. In primary school we learn the neat syllogism that plagiarism is stealing and stealing is wrong. Later on we learn the concepts of paraphrase, quotation, and citation—all designed to let you draw on (or pilfer!) others’ ideas in the “proper” way. Of course, what is “proper” depends widely based on subject, context, and community. What is proper citational practice for literary critics is not the same for historians is not the same for journalists and so on. Citation varies widely across cultures as well—the normative American view that a person owns their ideas and has inviolable control over their reproduction and distribution is of course part and parcel of our particular approach to copyright law, itself a fairly recent historical invention. Nor is it straightforward to navigate all these practices. Odd rules of thumb abound. Can you quote yourself, or is that still (somehow!) stealing? What’s the cut-off for theft: a sentence, a phrase, a word? Can you paraphrase by substituting each word in turn from a thesaurus, as I remember a classmate doing in elementary school? It’s a heap of inconsistency, but at its core is this idea of morality. We understand plagiarism as an immoral, even criminal act.1

Plagiarism carries the stink of sin. So why would students plagiarize? The knee-jerk response is that plagiarizers are lazy, immoral, or disrespectful. Without strict rules and technological enforcement, what stops mendacious students from inevitably trying to take advantage of their instructors? I like to think that most instructors think better of their students than this, so I’d like to come at the question from a different angle. Can we consider plagiarism not as a sin but rather one of many possible rational responses to the realities of education today?

Look, we all know that our students are overworked and overburdened. They are indebted, disillusioned, and strung out. Perhaps plagiarism is an easy way out for students who feel they need an easy way out. Perhaps plagiarism is a rational reaction to trying and failing to grasp the baroque systems of social and technical citational practice that we have erected for our students. Perhaps plagiarism is actually the student attempting to work through new and complex ideas by retaining the language of the original sources–a technique that Rebecca Moore Howard calls “patchwriting.” There are many things plagiarism could be before it’s a sin, and I think we owe it to our students to begin from places of generosity rather than punishment.

Which brings me to the second part: plagiarism detection software. Folks, I gotta break it to you: Turnitin fucking sucks! They’re just a shitty company up and down the board, and since they have more or less a monopoly on plagiarism detection thanks to expensive contracts we’re probably stuck with them. Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel have a useful rundown of why Turnitin is garbage, but I’ll highlight one thing in particular: that Turnitin claims copyright to any of our students’ material submitted to it, nominally to help it train future plagiarism detection software. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s our moral obligation in 2020 to do everything in our power as instructors to limit our students’ exposure to further datamining, particularly for companies that get rich off that free labor.

Now, better pedagogues than I have noted that there are essentially two ways to prevent plagiarism: 1) design assignments that are impossible to plagiarize; and 2) remove the incentives for plagiarism. Both of these are simple at face value, but can feel like impossibly tall orders. In the first case, instructors may not have the time, energy, ability, or latitude to reshape assignments to mitigate plagiarism, particularly for the large classes which are increasingly the norm in universities. And in the second case, the incentives for plagiarism are nothing less than the consumer-driven model of education more generally. When a degree is a product you buy, there will always be incentive to take the easy way toward obtaining it. Eliminating plagiarism feels like it would take nothing less than a revolution in higher education!

And I’m here to tell you: yeah, it probably would. But if you look around at education today and don’t think it needs a massive course-correction away from that consumer-driven model, away from the adjunctification that disempowers instructors, and away from the indebtedness up and down the ladder that makes risk-taking impossible—well, I guess send me the number for your therapist, because I want to learn to see the world the way you do! Some readers might think that I am starry-eyed, overly optimistic, or downright naive—and perhaps I am. But I’m also a grad student who simultaneously cares deeply about the project of education and also knows that my career as an educator likely ends in a year or two once I receive my Ph.D., so I hope y’all will forgive me a bit of starry-eyed optimism.

Here’s the tweetable line, I guess: plagiarism detection software is cop shit because it reifies a relation of suspicion between instructor and student. Without mutual trust, true education is impossible. Plagiarism detection software might make things simpler in the short run—it might even make the weight of an utterly broken educational system seem bearable for a moment!—but it’s not part of the future I want to imagine for education in this country. After all, what is rejecting cop shit if not then committing oneself to the more difficult project of imagining a better world?

  1. On Twitter, legal scholar Brian Frye was kind enough to share a paper of his, titled “Plagiarism is Not a Crime,” which may be of interest here from a literal legal perspective: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2752139. 

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