Cody Mills

Cody Mills

Professor Heather Trahan


Essay 3 – Synthesis

November 14, 2009

An Honest Mistake?

More than anything, if we think back to the earliest encounter we had with paper-writing, the teachers we had always drilled one thing into our head: Don’t plagiarize. At first, we were told we needed to have our sources in a bibliography page at the end of the paper, so the teachers could see where we found our information. However, as we grew older and began writing more, we were given rules to govern how we decided to use our sources. At this point, we couldn’t just try to change the words anymore, because if it was too similar, it would be paraphrasing, and it would require citation. The whole reason that we had these rules forced on us was simple; as far as the academic world was concerned, if you used a source the author needed crediting, and if citation was absent we were essentially stealing. But, is using another source without citing it really as bad as it’s been made out to be? Over reading three essays that delve into this topic: Rebecca Howard’s “A Plagiarism Pentimento”, Keith Miller’s “Redefining Plagiarism: Martin Luther King’s Use of an Oral Tradition”, and Maureen Hourigan’s “Of Plagiarism, Paper Mills, and the Harried, Hurried Student”, different arguments on the positive and negative aspects of plagiarism have been shown. Howard and Miller delve deeper into some of the positive aspects of plagiarism, and how it can be in some ways a good thing, while Hourigan presents the arguments against plagiarism, and this confliction between authors writing on the same subject has forced me to reconsider my views on plagiarism and if it is really as bad as I’ve been led to believe.

In Rebecca Howard’s “A Plagiarism Pentimento”, Howard discusses how students may not be consciously plagiarizing, and that their supposed crime is merely their way of understanding what has been presented to them. Howard discusses that what she believes is going on is that students are “patchwriting” (Howard 116), basically taking what they had read, and changing it while rewriting it. They choose what is important, taking out phrases and maybe whole sentences that might seem irrelevant, and changing words to suit their needs. In summarizing, the students change the essay in a way that makes it easier for them to understand. In doing this, however, they may not be obviously aware that what they have done is what many professional writers consider plagiarism. Howard states that this really shouldn’t even be thought of as plagiarism; the students are merely writing this way as a way to help themselves understand the topic they are covering, an attempt at grasping information that is foreign to them or written in a way that may be initially difficult to understand. This could possibly be the way that these students learned to write about a given subject.

One of the main points that Howard brings up in her essay is that students aren’t consciously plagiarizing the works that they are writing about. Instead, they “’borrowed’ whole sentences, deleting what they consider irrelevant words and phrases;” (pg 117). It seems interesting that the author decided that what the students were doing was actually not plagiarizing when most would almost certainly argue that it is. Though they aren’t aware of what they are doing, the students are technically doing exactly what teachers try to prevent; they are using the words of an author in a way that is inappropriate, considering the fact that most of them didn’t cite where the retrieved the information from. This is a classic example of paraphrasing, changing some of the writing to make the text sound different, and without a citation being added to that, or something else that would indicate that the message was borrowed, it is still considered plagiarism when you go by the definition. While Howard would argue that the students have done nothing wrong, without the necessary citation they are still essentially stealing the ideas of whoever originally wrote the paper, and therefore plagiarizing.

Miller, in writing “Redefining Plagiarism: Martin Luther King’s Use of an Oral Tradition”, Miller was able to illustrate that plagiarism, whether intentional or not, isn’t restricted to students, but also extends to well-known people, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Miller talks about how much of what King used was borrowed from other sources. He attributes this to the oral tradition that King came from, which seldom cites its sources, which is present in several different groups. While the rules of plagiarism are clearly defined, or what could be clearly defined to someone who’s been introduced to conventional English at a younger age, people like King, who had only ever known of the oral traditions of borrowing work, could beg for exception. Some people would take this stance on the subject; however, it is of my opinion that anyone who is at least aware of plagiarism should be required to conform to the same standards that we hold anyone else accountable for while writing.

“Of Plagiarism, Paper Mills, and the Harried Hurried Student” by Hourigan, the essay and apparently the author take a strong stance against plagiarism in any form. Among the topics discussed are the ease of access to material that can be easily copied thanks to the internet, and the idea of internet paper mills, sites that will offer to write a paper for a student. While sites like these may sometimes carry a disclaimer saying that they “’provide custom term paper writing/rewriting services inclusive of research material, for assistance purposes only. The term papers should be used with proper referencing.’” (pg 161), it’s obvious that any student going to use these sites have one intent in mind: to use what they’re given to turn in as their assignment. This might seem fine and dandy to the students, but as illustrated later in the essay, these papers themselves are often bulk-copied from other sources, these “custom-written” papers being nothing more than another example of plagiarism. While Hourigan comes off possibly a little harsh and fanatic in her stance, it’s more likely that she is just very opinionated on the subject of plagiarism, and highly critical of its use by students or anyone else.

While it’s obvious that there are people that could agree with anything that has been stated, probably a more important question is what information from these three essays should be considered relevant for the topic. To me, at least, the idea of patch-writing isn’t foreign at all; I know that in the past, I have personally picked apart a text that I had to write about, restructuring it as I saw fit to make it my own but overall just recycling everything that had been written in the text. However, I think that this practice isn’t necessarily needed by older students, as opposed to what Howard may believe. The practice was practical in our earlier educational endeavors, making our lives a little easier, they have no place in the college setting, where everyone should be very familiar with the rules surrounding plagiarism. This could be a problem for anyone who came from an oral tradition, one that wasn’t reliant on recounting the sources one has borrowed from, as illustrated by Miller’s writing. However, this could be mitigated by making sure that those people are properly educated on the rules of plagiarism before they encounter a situation that would potentially result in trouble for them.

This still, however, results in a problem with plagiarism. As far as a student doing it goes, any conscious effort to cheat through an assignment, regardless of the means, should result in trouble for the student. While copying and pasting, and rewording, texts isn’t as serious, though, the idea of paper mills, paying somebody else to do all the work, should be grounds for more severe punishment on the part of the faculty. Not only does this mean that the student didn’t care enough to put any effort into the assignment, even if it just meant cutting chunks from a text and rewording them, it also illustrates the student’s general attitude about a course; if they’re willing to pay to have something done, that means they consider the course as next to useless to them.

While all of these essays illustrate useful points in the argument, none of them really encompass more than one viewpoint on the subject of plagiarism. While Howard visits how useful it can be to students to patch-write, to help them understand the work, and Miller shows how King’s plagiarism was merely the result of his heritage and upbringing, neither truly address the negative aspects of plagiarism. However, Hourigan does essentially the same thing; she takes the opposing stance, talking about the bad side of plagiarism, but she doesn’t speak about its uses. To be honest, when I first read the essays, I found myself leaning towards supporting Howard’s point of view, that plagiarism could be a good thing, probably due to my own experiences with this as a younger student. However, the more I considered the subject, the more I found myself agreeing with Hourigan. I would probably say that to me, unless you have no knowledge of the rules of using sources, any form of plagiarism is inappropriate, and that any attempt to do so on purpose is completely wrong. To me, if someone is willing to cheat through a paper on purpose, for something so insignificant, then what else are they willing to cheat on? While Howard and Miller’s ideas and points have left me more open on the subject, ultimately I find that Hourigan’s arguments only helped to solidify what I had all ready believed, and that plagiarism is just cheating, and really cheating yourself.

Works Cited

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “A Plagiarism Pentimento” Essays on Writing. Eds. Lizbeth A. Bryant
and Heather M. Clark. New York: Longman, 2009. 115-126. Print.

Miller, Keith D. “Redefining Plagiarism: Martin Luther King’s Use of an Oral Tradition” Essays
on Writing. Eds. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. New York: Longman, 2009. 127-131. Print.

Hourigan, Maureen. “Or Plagiarism, Paper Mills, and the Harried Hurried Student” Essays on
Writing. Eds. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. New York: Longman, 2009.
156-167. Print.

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