The cynical view

(by Adrian Worsfold: this text is mine, OK)

If not read so far, read the article on this website that warns about all the different ways plagiarism can take place. Then read this.

When I was in the sixth form doing Economics, in those days sufficiently literate to be connected to the real world, rather than a mathematical virtual fiction (introduced to be more of a science of rationality, and thus of no use), I hit upon the idea that macro-economics should be like micro-economics. Keynesianism was a breaking of the rules. So I suddenly started getting good marks by writing highly original against the grain essays using micro-economics diagrams to make different macro-economics points. Then, I came down with a bump when I bumped into Milton Friedman. The only difference was he had a natural rate of unemployment which re-establised itself when there was a steady increase in money supply and therefore prices. It needed an increase in the increase in prices to keep unemployment down, which meant wopping inflation before long. As a result I had to adjust what I was writing, and my idea ceased to be original. All I had done was hit upon the problem with Keynes and full employment, subsituting it for the natural rate and changed the gradients for certain curves to do supply and demand and the price of money. Not bad for A level perhaps (I did get an A grade) but no originality there. Had I pursued my approach my argument would have been lacking, but having adjusted it I lost the originality of my idea - it now had to be referenced to the Chicago School of Economics, and to Friedrich Hayek too.

So much academia is like this. We are but second hand commentators on ideas and approaches that people have already thought long and hard about. Yet there is a demand in every piece of truly social scientific and arts academic work, made explicit at Ph.D level, to be original, and therefore give something extra to the academic tradition. New research can back up findings made elsewhere, perhaps, but even then the tradition must be maintained as fresh and moving on.

Yet the first question is:

  • How many ideas are actually new?

Unless there is some vital new discovery, and one which causes an instant paradigm shift (Kuhn), very few ideas are new. Recently, researchers around the same time hit upon the idea that ancient ritual sites like Stonehenge and long barrows were built with sound in their design (Channel 4, November 12, 2001, 9 pm - 10 pm). Certainly this had all the impact of newness for a television programme, and was given the vital TV detective story treatment in illustrating shifts in understanding ancient ritual and burial sites. The programme spoke in terms of acoustic amplification, of ritual leaders enhancing their abilities when sound waves amplify and also cancel each other out making noise come from other areas rather than them inside of the barrow, of infrasound effects from drum use in these environments causing hallucination and body-sleepness yet mind awareness, and of etchings that probably show sound wave based dust patterns.

At what point does retelling this become plagiarism? When, of course, it isn't referenced. Yet here in this very web page referencing is inadequate. The reason is that I remember what they said, but not who said it. I have not quoted the authors behind the related ideas, or the programme's title (in the Secrets of the Dead series), or the book that Channel 4 sells on the subject to make some money. If this was in an essay it would be inadequately referenced and on the borderline of plagiarism. Plagiarism is theft of an idea as well as block copying, because to discuss without a full reference gives an impression that the idea is one's own, and indeed lacks due regard to the person who originated the idea.

Every programme format on television is copyrighted to its originator. For example, no one can now produce a programme with doubling prize money, a contestant or two, and a questioner who faffs about, where there are lifelines of "50-50" or "phone a friend" and stages achieved where money won is not risked. When the programme is made abroad, the appropriate fee must be paid. This happens in academia too. If too much is reproduced verbatim, the publisher's permission must be sought (and a fee is likely), or quotations must be kept down to short passages for the purposes of commentary alone. Even without a block copy, an idea must be referenced.

Further questions include:

  • How can one accurately represent an idea without plagiarising?
  • Can an academic essay ever be readable?
  • How much does an idea have to change to be new?
  • How can every Ph.D meet its requirement to be in some way original?
  • Is plagiarism about power relations?
  • Surely all evasions of block copying involve the skill of rewriting?

There is an obligation on any writer to accurately represent an idea. If whole blocks of imported text are to be avoided, rewriting a line of argument for an idea does require very careful and skillful rewriting. How little something has to change before misrepresentation takes place, and yet the words cannot be reproduced block after block. It seems it is necessary to rewrite, to become clever at it, whilst at the same time referencing where the close original comes from in terms of that argument and its page numbers.

That brings another problem, or not lapsing into the sin of reproduction alone, even via clever rewrites. Of course many an essay is a following of one book and then a hop to another. Afterall, this is how the argument is best put, and how else can it be put. Perhaps it is best to jump between different sources of the same argument (other second hand presentations) just to avoid the sin of copying by a few word changes.

This creates another problem. If essays are written with constant references they can become rapidly unreadable (and are in the case of extensive footnotes, where additional comment about sources can be made). The fact is that if most essays really did reference everything that was said before on the subject, sentences would be cluttered with long lists of author, date; author, date. In fact iit is barely possible to write anything that has not been said before. As a result most essays and articles do plagiarise! Basically we are forced to reference selectively, and we do not reference knowledge that seems to have become general and well established in the public realm. Writers rarely cite the original article but some writing that gets one into the stream of thought that has taken place.

Academic study is about knowing and recognising a tradition of thinking, that line of authors who have contributed to the field. You have to check them (especially in case the new idea was thought of first, as is usual). Even then somehow something extra has to be said. Perhaps it is a new commentary, or a statement of something missed (but check - was it actually missed?). More usually, the element of newness is very marginal, little more than a reflection upon something well worn, or a personal view of the balance of the argument.

My Ph.D did claim originality in terms of rewriting Church-denomination-sect into an updated heterodox liberal, orthdodox liberal (middle of the mainstream), traditionalisms and conversionisms. I sent the ideas in a letter to a theologian-sociologist. One day I was in a church books bookshop and these ideas suitably (but not greatly) modified were in this book, with no reference to me. I said to my friend instantly that the ideas were stolen. There are also countless occasions when a professor has reproduced for himself or herself ideas that their research students thought of, but cannot challenge because of the imbalance of power. Power matters when plagiarising, in that some plagiarising is so insignificant (by who does it - it is not published) that no action is taken, or that when the person with power does it nothing can be done. Also, how many universities or colleges throw out students who plagiarise when their completion of a course secures the college income?

So to avoid plagiarising, we learn how to rewrite. We remember to reference, sacrificing some readability. We look at the bibliography of the source used, and check a few of them, and of course it is known that students quote far more books in their bibliographies than they have read or even seen. Many take the risk of quoting original sources that were not available or sources that had all been borrowed by other students until the hand in date. Such students rely on the accuracy of interpretation of the second hand writer, or the comprehensive nature of the reader which cuts off its paid for verbatim extract at hopefully some suitable point. Some students think that articles on the Internet are accurate, where usually not a scrap of moderation has taken place and where anyone can write anything, including me.

So academic writing is a kind of deception. No one has time or the fortune to know all that has been written on a subject. The Ph.D student never stops taking a risk that something was lost or forgotten. I remember apologising to my external examiner in the Viva (oral examination) for missing some his work on the subject, which I had discovered too late but ahead of the Viva when I'd looked up his name. Fortunately he did not want special inclusion - and the Ph.D was not referred.

We do rewrite and regurgitate. What is new is so marginal that it is often a piece of creativity. Sometimes, though, there is a breakthrough, perhaps if only because the latest trend has worn itself out (has this happened to that last burst of newness and creativity - postmodernism - yet?).