Why we should stop criminalizing practices that are confused with plagiarism

Editor's note: This essay represents the personal and professional opinions of Roy Peter Clark and should not be used to characterize the opinions of Poynter or the standards and practices of Poynter.org.

It is time to decriminalize certain practices now described under the rubric of plagiarism.

There has been too much loose talk about plagiarism since I first wrote about the topic in 1983. I'll share some of the blame. The result is that serious acts of literary theft have been mixed up with trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.

A classic case of overcharging occurred in 2007 when journalism teachers at the University of Missouri condemned a colleague of plagiarism after he used quotes from a student newspaper in an opinion piece without attribution. I argued then that while the practice may have been sloppy, to call it plagiarism was like "shooting a fly with a bazooka."

I raise these issues again in advance of the April 5 plagiarism summit on the eve of the annual meeting of ACES in St. Louis. That venue seems right. Copy editors are -- in both theory and practice -- the standard bearers of the craft.

That said, I smell a whiff of panic in the air. My colleague Craig Silverman dubbed the summer of 2012 -- for its several literary transgressions -- as the “Summer of Sin.” He cites "a cavalcade of plagiarism, fabrication and unethical recycling."

But he might just as well have written about 1981 when the “Jimmy’s World” scandal at the Washington Post rocked the journalism world. He might have time-traveled to 1934 and listened to city editor Stanley Walker complain about how many young reporters were “faking” their stories.

I see no persuasive evidence that literary abuse is more common today than in yesteryear. In the cut and paste culture of digital technology, plagiarism may be easier to commit, but it is also easier to detect. Standards may appear in decline when, in fact, media crime fighters such as Silverman are simply more assertive and armed with better Geiger counters.

Too scrupulous an ethic on plagiarism will lead, I fear, to witch hunts. Plagiarism -- along with its cousin fabrication -- should be policed. The punishments for wrongdoers should be harsh.  But the word plagiarism should be confined to clear-cut cases of literary and journalistic fraud.

To build my case, I am borrowing from four books and recommend them to anyone grappling with these issues, either in academic or professional contexts:

  • "The Little Book of Plagiarism," by Richard A. Posner, a federal judge, a law school lecturer, and a prolific author, who writes persuasively on issues of plagiarism and copyright infringement.
  • "The Anxiety of Influence," by Harold Bloom, a legendary scholar and critic from Yale, who considers the patterns of influence that govern how one author learns from another.
  • "Stolen Words," by Thomas Mallon, a novelist and practical scholar who delves into a long history of literary theft, practiced by some of the most honored authors in the canon of English and American literature.
  • "City Editor," by Stanley Walker. An influential New York City editor in the 1930s, Walker includes a chapter on the questionable literary and journalistic standards of his day.

Judge Posner defines plagiarism as “a species of intellectual fraud. It consists of unauthorized copying that the copier claims…is original with him and the claim causes the copier’s audience to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth.”

Let’s unpack that language with an example. Say that I am writing a new book titled "Read, Write, Talk," and in a panic to meet a deadline I copy a chapter from "Read to Write," an old book written by my mentor Donald Murray.

I give no credit to Don, who will not rat me out because he died in 2006. It should be clear that I am committing an act of fraud by creating the impression that my chapter is original.  In that way, I attract buyers to my book, who might not have purchased it if they knew the truth. I deceive my readers. I deprive the estate of Donald Murray potential income. When Chip Scanlan, another devotee of Murray’s, discovers the fraud and announces it to the world, I deserve the sanctions that will follow.

Let’s turn Posner’s definition into a checklist. An act of plagiarism requires 1) the substantial copying without credit of one person’s language by another; 2) that this copying is done fraudulently, that is, to fool the reader into thinking that the work is original; 3) that the plagiarist acts with the clear intention to trick the reader; 4) that the act has potential negative consequences for the reader and the original author.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would find those standards controversial. Here are the conclusions I've derived from these standards:

1. The so-called act of “self-plagiarism” is not plagiarism.

Posner hits the target on this one: “The temptation to lump distinct practices in with plagiarism should be resisted for the sake of clarity; ‘self-plagiarism,’ for example, should be recognized as a distinct practice and rarely an objectionable one.” All successful writers “re-purpose” their work for profit and influence, but they should always be forthright with potential publishers on whether the work is brand new or recycled.

2. So called “patch writing” -- as long as it credits sources -- is not plagiarism.

I’m no expert on patch writing, but apparently college students are. Using cut and paste technologies, writers can take material from several online sources, patch it together, add some original language, and hand it in to fulfill assignments. I would not teach this practice as a strategy for honest, original, and memorable writing, but, as long as the sources are named and are accompanied online with the appropriate links, I would not equate it with plagiarism.

3. Inadequate paraphrasing of a credited source is not plagiarism.

A stormy controversy involving The Poynter Institute and its ace blogger Jim Romenesko was sparked when someone complained that the language in Jim’s expanded summaries wasn't properly attributed. I protested inside and outside of Poynter against attempts to characterize this as plagiarism -- which was the effect of the criticism against him. With direct links to the original sources, there was no fraud or deception involved, and no harm, real or potential to the audience or sources cited.

4. Use of a clever or apt phrase -- up to the level of the sentence -- is not plagiarism as long as you thought of it independently, even if you find that others have used it before.

I remember a college tract on plagiarism (I cannot cite the original source) that warned students against stealing an “apt phrase” without attribution.

I was thinking of this subtitle for my next book "How to Write Short": “140 Characters in Search of an Author,” a dazzling mashup of Twitter requirements and the Pirandello play.  My editor was less impressed. And then, sure enough, it showed up as the title of an essay in the New York Times Book Review. Here is my rule of thumb: If you thought of it independently, use it. It’s not plagiarism. It’s what Posner describes as “simultaneous discovery.”

5. Literary allusions -- even a mosaic of esoteric ones -- are NOT plagiarism.

When my friend Howell Raines wrote an influential profile of the ambitious son of another Florida politician, he began: “Will the son also rise?” Some alert readers recognized that phrase as an allusion to a book by Ernest Hemingway. Another set of readers, familiar with their Bibles, recognized that Papa had borrowed his title from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Raines got the benefit of both sources, using a phrase that was clear on its face for readers who recognized neither.

Allusion differs from plagiarism in that it begs for detection. Delight is caused by a recognition of the borrowing.

6. Boilerplate descriptions of news, history, or background are not plagiarism.

I once interviewed an editor of The Wall Street Journal who described for me a “recipe book” that writers could use to give readers clear, accurate, and concise descriptions of economic terms like “gross domestic product” and “the money supply.”

When Pope Benedict resigned, I consulted encyclopedias, histories and other general sources to find out the last time something like this happened. If the borrowed language is straightforward and informational (as opposed to, say, metaphorical), I see no need for elaborate and time-consuming efforts to re-write it.

How many ways can you say: “Roy Peter Clark graduated from Providence College in 1970 with a degree in English”?

7. Ghost writing is not plagiarism.

Some celebrities and politicians have it easy. They deliver or publish the wonderful words of gifted writers who are satisfied with a good payday, and, if they are lucky, a bit of recognition in the acknowledgments. Since everyone is in on the scam -- including most readers -- and no one is injured, it remains an acceptable practice.

8.  Writing for genres -- such as the legal brief or the sermon -- in which there is a long tradition of borrowing without attribution is not plagiarism.

There are books of sermons from which preachers are encouraged to borrow. Judicial decisions are often written by law clerks. Every teacher I know will speak words during a writing workshop that have been uttered or written by others. Credit to the source should be given when it really matters, but there is no need to gum up a good lesson with needless attribution.

9. Copying from other writers in what are considered collaborative ventures --newsrooms, wire services, press releases, textbook authorship -- is not plagiarism.

You are writing about drought conditions in Florida. You consult what we used to call the clips. You find that a colleague, Joe Blow, reported on the issue five years ago. A paragraph in that story describes the situation back then perfectly. With approval of your editor, you drop that graph into your story as background. No problem.

Writing in most cases is a social activity. Editors re-write leads or insert paragraphs. Basic information is borrowed from the AP or a press release. These are not short cuts taken by cheaters. They are essential moves of the craft that should not be criminalized.

10. Copying from or borrowing the general ideas and issues that are emerging as part of the zeitgeist is not plagiarism.

Here, one last time, is Posner: “The most important distinction between plagiarism of verbal passages…and plagiarism of ideas… -- a distinction that suggests that much copying of ideas isn’t plagiarism at all – is that old ideas are constantly being rediscovered by people unaware that the ideas had been discovered already….A rediscoverer or independent discoverer is not a copier, hence not a plagiarist.”

My decriminalizing these activities does not mean that I approve of them. It means I can consider them, act on them, even criticize them in a different frame than the stigmatizing one that the word plagiarism requires. I can use a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

In making my case for decriminalization, I disassociate myself from writers and teachers such as Kenneth Goldsmith, author of the book "Uncreative Writing," who, in a recent On the Media interview, described the ways in which he encouraged students to borrow generously and creatively from the work of other writers. Goldsmith argues that we live in a culture that rewards and requires such borrowing, using the sampling of original music as an analogy. It seems as if Goldsmith would eliminate plagiarism as a category -- and expand fair use to infinity -- which is NOT where I want my argument to lead.

I have made this case before, and I make it again: You do not prevent the bank teller from stealing from the till by sending Sallie or Sam to an ethics seminar. If you are the bank manager, you point to the video camera that is focused tightly on the work station.

Nor will a seminar or summit prevent wholesale acts of plagiarism or fabrication. To prevent the former you inform your writers that their work will be routinely and randomly filtered through plagiarism detection software, which is getting better and more common.

To prevent the latter, you tell the writer that they should be ready to provide an editor with contact information about any source mentioned in a story, and that editors reserve the right to contact any source at any time to verify that they exist and to check on the performance of the reporter. Such watchdog efforts require labor and money at a time when news organizations are lacking both.

In the meantime, let’s not overburden the journalists who are left with impossible and impractical standards that have never matched the daily practice of the craft. Then, if they are caught stealing, out the door they go -- right on their asses.

What's your take? Feel free to share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section.

Related News University Webinar: Preventing Plagiarism and Fabrication in News Publishing

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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