The Problem Called Plagiarism

Have you ever come across a term that you were unsure of the meaning? If you have, you might decide to look it up in the dictionary. I was curious about the “official” definition of the word plagiarism and found this as the description of it in The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing: “using someone else’s work—words, ideas, or illustrations, published or unpublished— without giving the creator of that work sufficient credit” (Ramage, Bean, Johnson 772). Plagiarism is almost always agreed upon as a bad thing, but is this an accurate definition? Rebecca Moore Howard writes an essay describing the reason why a student would closely paraphrase a work, while Keith D. Miller ask whether spoken words are bound to the same citing rules as writing, and finally Maureen Hourigan writes about the problem of paper mills which give students an easy way out of writing essays. All of these essays agree with the definition above, but they also have contradictions, which shows that the meaning to plagiarism can lead us into a gray and shady area, where some things might seem dishonest upfront could also have legitimate backing.

“A Plagiarism Pentimento” by Rebecca Moore Howard takes a different look at what some teachers might describe as plagiarism; she explains a way students attempt to write at the same level as the scholars they are analyzing. Howard explains that quite often a student will write something similar to the author they are reading and will change words, grammar, and other things to make it their own. Many teachers would classify this as plagiarism because the writing seems hardly their own, but Howard disagrees calling it “patchwriting” saying that it is “rather a healthy effort to gain membership in a new culture” (Howard 118). I agree with Howard from the standpoint that it is hard for students to write about something they are unfamiliar with, and the only way they can really write is to say similar to the author. Patchwriting is in no way simple cut and paste of text. There is an attempt to make the work their own, and the sources are cited since most of the time the student will patchwrite from his acknowledged source. What is commonly misunderstood about patchwriting is that it is an honest effort at writing; it will be used less as a student matures in his writing ability and becomes more knowledgeable in the subject in which he is writing.

Another essay describing the problem that we call plagiarism is “Redefining Plagiarism” by Keith D. Miller, which takes a look at a certain important figure in American history named Martin Luther King, Jr. and the fact that he did not acknowledge his sources. It is true that a lot of King’s speeches and writings might not have been solely his, but one must examine the culture he comes from to understand why he “plagiarized.” Miller explains that, “In much of King’s public career, he drew on an oral tradition, forged during slavery, that rarely acknowledged sources” (Miller 128) along with being a preacher, meaning he was very familiar using spoken stories. This is where we start to ask questions as to how should plagiarism be defined. Was King expected to cite his source at the end of his speech? It just seems to me that the rules to what is plagiarism are different for speeches than for academic papers. It might be startling at first if someone just says that King plagiarized thinking there is no way it could be true, however, one must understand the context and who he was quoting when he gave these speeches.

The third essay, “Of Plagiarism, Paper Mills, and the Harried Hurried Student” by Maureen Hourigan, is mostly about the problem schools have with students and their use of paper mills, a company that will sell essays to students so that they can use them as a “guide” when writing their own which usually means the student will submit the mill’s essay as his own. Hourigan tries to look into why a student might cave in to using paper mills, and there are quite a few possible reasons. A student could merely be lazy, or maybe he is pressured to get really good grades, or he might not have enough time to write it. Whatever the reason, there is currently no acceptable reason as to why a student would use such a thing. One could ask why a student isn’t allowed to pay for the intellectual property of another, similar to how just about anything else could be bought, including the purchasing of a copyright or hiring a ghost writer practiced by big companies. Why shouldn’t someone who is good at writing be able to make money off his ability just like anyone with talent? The definition of plagiarism given at the beginning states that to avoid it, one must “give the creator of the work credit.” Someone might wonder why the “credit” can’t be money. This is why the area of plagiarism is so foggy because it is hard to give a clear answer, however, Hourigan leaves us with a clear and meaningful message, “In passing off someone else’s work as your own, you cheat yourself of a learning experience” (165 Hourigan).

Obviously these three different authors’ essays focus on a different aspect under the large umbrella called plagiarism. The main thing that the definition does not mention is the intention of the person who plagiarized. This is most likely the deciding factor as to how this person should be judged in terms of academic honesty. Howard’s essay describing patchwriting, which almost clearly fits the definition of plagiarism, summarizes that the rules of plagiarism prevent the student from participating in the academic community “because it does not address the motivation for patchwriting” (Howard 122). One could also look at the motives of Martin Luther King Jr., written about by Miller, who wasn’t trying to become a superior in the academic world but instead was trying to motivate others in the civil rights movement. To put it simply, “securing fundimental human rights…outweighs the right to the exclusive use of intellectual and literary property” (Miller 131). Paper mills, described by Hourigan, are, however, the most definite form of plagiarism since the motivation for buying these works includes reasons such as “students have always been busy…students have always had the pressure of getting good grades…and students have always grumbled about assignments that seem to have no inherent value to their majors” (Hourigan 157). Once the motive of the writer is established one can finally decide how severe this breach in academic integrity really is. A problem arises for teachers who ask, “Why did my student plagiarize?” A possible way to determine a motive would be to figure out what type of plagiarism it is. If it is patchwriting, most likely the student tried not to, but if it is copied directly from someone else’s work, he wasn’t putting any effort in himself. Another way a teacher could determine a student’s motive is to ask him because an honest student would have nothing to hide. One could also theorize how something could be defined as plagiarism if two of these situations mix, for example, what would King’s speeches be classified as if they written by a hired speech writer but just as powerful? Another situation could be if a student bought an essay from a mill and patchwrote from it, and would it be any different if he cited it or not? What is definite is that plagiarism is severe academic dishonesty but the context will always be important to decide when has occurred.

What constitutes as plagiarism or not continues to be a very ambiguous question and in the age of technology, just a few keystrokes away, a student can find a seemingly infinite amount of sources to patchwrite from or websites that sell prewritten essays, plagiarism will continue to thrive no matter how it is defined.

Works Cited

Hourigan, Maureen. “Of Plagiarism, Paper Mills, and the Harried Hurried Student.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. New York: Longman, 2009. 156-70. Print

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “A Plagiarism Pentimento.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. New York: Longman, 2009. 115-27. Print

Miller, Keith D. “Redefining Plagiarism: Martin Luther King’s Use of an Oral Tradition.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. New York: Longman, 2009. 127-34. Print

Ramage, John D., Bean, John C., Johnson, June. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing. Fifth ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2009. Print


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