Commentary: The War on Plagiarism | KERA News

Commentary: The War on Plagiarism

Dallas, TX –

I visited a high school library the other day and noted the large number of students taking notes from the computer. Most of them were logged on to Wikipedia, an on-line compendium of encyclopedic freelance information. They were gathering notes for their research papers.

These are the industrious ones, I'm afraid.

As a teacher for most of my life I'm an old veteran of the plagiarism wars. If Wikipedia isn't bad enough, students can now buy themes on the Internet already written!

Though there's no fool-proof way to fight plagiarism, I made progress by assigning students to research their own personal family history. But some of them even plagiarized their classmates' family trees!

No wonder they do it. They have role models. Historians Stephan Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin had their troubles about it. Alex Haley cribbed long passages from another author and used them in Roots. Even the great poet Coleridge was suspected of it. ]

A popular columnist for the Boston Globe was fired for lifting material. New York Times writer Jayson Blair, same thing. The New Republic writer Stephen Glass even made up his own news, complete with bogus sources!

Assuming the sources are real, the rule is that they should be footnoted. If notes are taken verbatim they must be placed in quotation marks. If only the ideas are used, quotation marks aren't necessary but the ideas should be attributed to their owners by footnotes.

As a freshman college student, I didn't footnote any of the ideas I put into my critique of a Shakespeare play. My professor knew it, as professors always do, and wrote the following on my paper: "You have skillfully summarized these critics' ideas and passed them off as your own. They have worked hard over many years to earn their critical reputations. You, on the other hand, have earned only an F."

Instead of ruining my literary life, he saved it by teaching me that writing is an act of creation. It is like a work of art that represents the writer. Good or bad, pass or fail, it is unique. The most important test of its success is whether or not it is honest.

As further punishment for my youthful crime, I myself have been a victim of literary predators. A poem of mine, "What if An Educator Had Written The Lord's Prayer," is often used in newspapers, business periodicals, church newsletters, and college writing handbooks without my permission. Sometimes my name is left completely off the poem. Sometimes it's listed but the original source, English Journal, is omitted.

This was the case in the Amherst College Writing handbook. But I was anonymous in the University of Victoria handbook. I wrote to these professors noting that these handbooks include chapters on plagiarism with stern warnings to students, and professors should live by them too.

But comes now something more serious. Internet companies selling themes to college students, A+ Writing, Bell Writing, and Essays.com, use my poem in its entirety without my permission.

I don't feel merciful about this. I would never willingly be a part of an outfit that sells student writings. And so I tried, unsuccessfully, to contact them to complain. It's actually easier to get in touch with a cell phone company than with these shady operations.

"I'd horsewhip them if I had a horse!"

By the way, this last line permission of Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

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