Sunday, October 10, 2010

Stanley Fish On Plagarism

Stanley Fish argues that plagiarism is a professional, not moral sin:
If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no.

[...]

And if you’re a student, plagiarism will seem to be an annoying guild imposition without a persuasive rationale (who cares?); for students, learning the rules of plagiarism is worse than learning the irregular conjugations of a foreign language. It takes years, and while a knowledge of irregular verbs might conceivably come in handy if you travel, knowledge of what is and is not plagiarism in this or that professional practice is not something that will be of very much use to you unless you end up becoming a member of the profession yourself. It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into. It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished — if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules — just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.

There's something to this. If you're throwing together a PowerPoint for some management team and you happened to have included some insights you've just learned from some management book, then you're not going to cite it. It doesn't matter in that context whose idea it was originally. It matters that you have a good plan.

Professors, many of whom have spent their entire adult lives inside academia, often, because of The Big Assumption, assume things and apply values that seem, to outsiders at least, odd. Don't get FLG wrong. He agrees with Fish. Plagiarism violators should be punished, if only because education is about teaching you how to think through problems and come up with new ideas. That's a very different goal from the corporate PowerPoint.

You know what irks FLG? It's the professors who aren't fired even after they've plagiarized. It is a professional sin, and they should be fired. Whether or not some grad student copied and pasted is entirely irrelevant to FLG. The listed author has the final responsibility for the content of the book or article.

3 comments:

Alpheus said...

Something that's bugged me for years: lots of professors get bent out of shape about the nuances of citing sources -- this, when the real problem is students' copying material wholesale from online or print sources. In an undergraduate paper, sloppy citation is nothing like cheating to avoid doing the assignment. The former is maybe a reason to lower the grade slightly. The latter should be grounds for expulsion.

The Ancient said...

FLG --

There's literal plagiarism and then there's something still more grave:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/books/11book.html?hp=&pagewanted=print

arethusa said...

In the context of academia, though, I would say that because it is a professional sin it is also a moral sin. Academia lives by thought. To take others' thoughts is morally wrong in that context. In the world of business, the sin of plagiarism is a very different one.

 
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