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Friday, November 16, 2012

Plagiarism as cross-contamination

You often hear people say, "It's not deliberate plagiarism, just carelessness." Actually, however, cross-contamination is a better metaphor for most cases of plagiarism than theft. The idea that plagiarism is stealing ideas or words is confusing for a lot of people, because theft is usually a deliberate act. "I didn't mean to do it" is not a legitimate excuse, and non-intentional plagiarism is still plagiarism. Imagine I got on a bike, thinking it was mine, and got home with it. Later I realize it is not mine. I didn't mean to steal the bike, but I still did something wrong.

[Of course, wholesale appropriation of others' ideas is theft, and is plagiarism.]

So the secret to avoiding plagiarism is not to be careless. It is a matter of higiene: keeping your words separate from those of others, meticulously keeping track of who said what / when / how.

I'm assuming most food poisoning occurs not because someone is trying to poison the food, but because of a lack of hygiene. You can have separate notebooks for quotes from other people and your own ideas, just like you might have separate chopping boards for vegetables and meat. You should never transcribe a quote into your document without quotation marks or indentations. Don't go back and format later, because you might not remember. You should have a protocol in place to protect your scholarly integrity.


Andrew Shields said...

How timely. I've got students blatantly plagiarizing in an essay-writing class. How utterly stupid: first of all, I can Google suspicious phrases and bust them. Secondly, if the point of the class is not how brilliant your interpretations are but how well-structured your essays are, then plagiarizing is not only lazy but also completely undermines the point of the class!

Thomas said...

Good example of this over at Andrew Gelman's blog. Including the "carelessness defense" in the comments.

Jonathan said...

I was reading a post from a few years back on SMT the other day. I had a really strong feeling about it, that I had not written it, somehow, that it wasn't mine.

Sure enough, it was a guest post written by you.

I could imagine writing something and then forgetting it, but I think that there are intuitions that have to be listened to. My intuition is that verbatim copying is plagiarism whether it is deliberate or accidental. We can also be held culpable for negligence that isn't the product of a deliberate act of will.

Judy said...

Last night I was watching my 8 year old granddaughter happily creating a Power Point on red pandas, wanting to cut and paste from Wikipedia but I wouldn't let her. But to her what is the difference between cutting and pasting words and the cutting and pasting she did of pictures discovered online? I think that her generation and others after will think of what we call plagiarism as collage.

profacero said...

Cutting and pasting of pictures discovered online is probably violation of copyright and your granddaughter should cut it out.