Tuesday, June 14, 2011

People Don't Care About Plagiarism

FLG begs to differ with these thoughts about blog ethics:
Journalistic codes of conduct don't seem to apply. Certainly some academic standards do. For example, a blogger who plagiarized would certainly be ostracized quite quickly, but presumably the punishment would come more through social shaming and reader boycotts than any explicit sanctions against the writer. So do bloggers have a code of conduct? Should they have a code of conduct?

FLG assumes this author is an academic because she's blogging over at Duck of Minerva, the authors of which he believes are all academics. Consequently, FLG thinks The Big Assumption is at work here and an academic is assuming their experience is representative when, quite frankly, it's not.

FLG thinks he may have mentioned this before, but normal people don't really care about plagiarism. Managers and executives just want the information presented and an easily digested format that highlights the main points and makes a recommendation. If an entire paragraph comes from some other source and sans attribution, well, nobody will care. The important part is that it informs some decision they have to make. The only times FLG has ever been asked about sources was regards to data and statistics.

Plagiarism matters to academics and journalists because the end is not some decision. Instead, the words are, in a very real way, the end, the product. So, it makes sense that they would be concerned and develop norms surrounding plagiarism. Likewise, it is entirely appropriate that plagiarism is taken as a serious infraction in academic environments, even if the students never plan on becoming academics or journalists. (Although, FLG wishes the same rule applied to big name professors as well. Yes, Harvard Law, FLG is talking about you.)

But while the blogosphere has academic and journalistic sub-spheres, let's call them neighborhoods, that hold and enforce the norms from the real world, there are other neighborhoods where nobody will give a second thought to plagiarism.

FLG believes that non-academic, non-journalistic people object, if they object at all, not so much to plagiarism, but to the general hypocrisy of failing to live up to a standards of a community the plagiarist chose to join.


The Ancient said...

1) Je prends mon bien où je le trouve, said Molière (and more mockingly, several others over the next two hundred years, all the way up to Brecht, who said, in German, "I pick my flowers where I find them.")

2) I am always shocked to see the extent of plagiarism in the British newspapers -- tabloids and broadsheets alike. But maybe it's just a more adult attitude to tomorrow's fishwrap.

3) Has anyone ever seen a scholarly study on how contemporary attitudes towards plagiarism developed?

Hilarius Bookbinder said...

Well, FLG, you almost make it to the obvious counter-argument on this one: plagiarism matters because academic output is the relevant property. It's what gets you a job, or a promotion, or status. And almost every career or line of work has strong norms protecting those outputs.

Also, 'nobody will care' is kind of an odd argument to make. Because: 1. some people do care and 2. whether or not anyone cares does not resolve the ethical question. And #2 is exactly the sort of thing college students need to learn, if they haven't picked it up before.

FLG said...


Upon re-reading the post before posting, I wanted to add something about the ethical dimension of it all, but had to run and didn't.

My point about nobody caring is precisely because it isn't really an ethical issue. Or more to the point it's not some sort of universal ethical issue. Plagarism only matters to academics, as you and I both rightly point out, because it has to do with promotion, status, etc. Norms cropped up around those naturally.

However, this doesn't make the norm universal to all realms. I've never had a boss who would've batted an eye if you'd lifted whole passages and didn't attribute. It was always a matter if the information provided them was meaningful and relevant to making some decision. (At least when I was producing something of length.)

Indeed, I think that academia and journalism are unique in this regard, for understandable reasons. But I don't think because there is a norm against it in one realm, academia/journalism, that this makes it applicable everywhere. And I disagree that this norm applies to blogs. Perhaps the inhabitants of the academic realm of the blogosphere bring that norm with them, but I disagree that no to plagiarism is part of the bloggers code of conduct.

I guess I'm making a semantic argument, since I always try to link to the source of everything. However, that's just to keep the conversation going and go directly to the original source themselves. Two reasons that could be given against plagiarism in the academic sphere. However, I think the quotation in question is taking for granted something from a norm from academic world and incorrectly generalizing to the blogger world. If a non-academic/non-journalist blogger plagiarizes, I think 1) it's not an ethical lapse and 2) few people will care.

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