brazenly 'sampled' from a book, the dictionary, and 'remixed' into a news story," writes Julian Sanchez in an annoyed response to court rulings on sampling in the music industry. His phrasing, however, perfectly encapsulates the real problems in defining and avoiding plagiarism. In the attempt to express my own personal understanding and interpretation of plagiarism, I quickly found that despite the most sincere attempt to develop such an interpretation was bound to failure. In a moment of sarcasm, I might express a fear of plagiarizing from the honor codes of universities across the nation if I were to merely parrot back the description of plagiarism which involves not only "using another writer's words without proper citation" (CACCAS) but also "using another writer's ideas without proper citation." (CACCAS), definitions which are used verbatim in student handbooks wherever English is spoken. The problem is more significant, however, than this flippancy might make it appear. I have long felt concerned that it is impossible to entirely document my sources in many cases. If, for example, I were to sit down to write an essay about politics, how could I possibly separate my own supposedly original thought from the arguments and ideas which I had heard for years growing up in an atmosphere of political debate, or listening to NPR every morning as my alarm sounded or reading the newspaper over breakfast? One almost wishes that the Discovery channel would leave off giving facts in its broadcast which perversely make their way into one's subconscious -- I may never be able to take a history class again! If I am to have educated opinions, then by definition my opinions -- my ideas -- are based on facts and ideas in which I have been educated and which are not my own... yet I certainly could not recall the name or source of my recollection that, for example, many Egyptologists argue that the pyramids were not built by slaves or that African-Americans constitute a majority of drug arrests but not a majority of drug users. I have often been reduced to writing the majority of a paper and then going to the library or the internet to find sources to which I can attribute my knowledge, just in case it is uncommon. For this very essay I began with the certain feeling that plagiarism is impossible to define and perhaps unhealthy to prohibit, and a general certainty that this was indicated by the ideals of postmodern thought. A few hours of research dug up sources from which my personal opinions of the chimerical value of plagiarism might be, after all, derived. Lynnell Edwards, author of "What a tangled web: teachers, students, and the knot of plagiarism in the postmodern academy," pointed out two books by Rebecca Moore Howard and the editorial team Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy which, if I bothered to read them, would probably point me back to the genesis of the postmodern critique that has somehow filtered down to me.
Can I provide a "narrative or description that demonstrates your personal understanding and interpretation of the ethics of academic writing, plagiarism, and original work"? (assignment details) No, I cannot, for I do not have a very firm understanding of this... and, if intellectual honesty really were alive in the university, I suspect that most people would be obliged to admit that they, too, were uncertain on this point.
Now, this lack of clarity is a primarily philosophical issue in some ways. The most obvious cases of plagiarism I certainly can recognize and understand. Consciously quoting someone else's exact words, phraseology, or ideas while intentionally disregarding the responsibility of citing them as a source is an obvious and dishonest form of plagiarism. I understand thoroughly that it is considered academically dishonest to pass off someone else's work as one's own -- that the school system is not a capitalist regime in which one can appropriate the products of another's labor in return for an exploitative per-page salary; we are all good communists here in academia... (Are Marx's theories considered common knowledge in Red America?) ... Or rather, rugged individualists, considering that communal sharing is not encouraged either. While plagiarism is hard to identify for me at times, academic dishonesty is clear. While plagiarism is the "theft" of commodified ideas, something which might occur without one being entirely conscious of wrong-doing as the mind constructs its own opinions and ideas out of the prefabricated ideas of its ancestors, academic dishonesty cannot be accidental. Dishonesty is defined by conscious deception. When one chooses to appropriate elements of another's work and attempt to pass it off as one's own, then one is becoming academically dishonest. Of course, dishonesty in any form is wrong.
What provokes students to be academically dishonest? Part of the problem, one suspects, is the degree of pressure which school asserts. Primary education very often does not focus on true learning, but rather on the production of students who can pass standardized tests. Students are then thrown into a college environment with very little ability to synthesize ideas and a very strong need to graduate. College itself is generally presented by society not as an end in itself but as a requirement for future success. "Go to college so you can get ahead in life," suggests parents and primary teachers, social leaders and advertisements. It really is an issue in a capitalist country that the focus on success is so high as to obscure any wrong-doing along the way. If success in college is necessary as an insignificant prerequisite to "real life," and not as a goal in itself, then any method necessary to compete may seem justifiable. This problem escalates as other students are seen to be cheating. Grades are often given on a curve, so that students who cheat do significantly better than those who do not and may perceive that they, too, need to plagiarize in order to compete. The power inequality between teachers/schools and students means that students are afraid to rely merely on their own abilities, when a failure could seriously impede their future livelihood. As school becomes part of a cut-throat capitalistic system in terms of competition and uneven power dispersal, the idea of holding words in common becomes increasingly attractive. If there could be a system-based less on hard grades and more on actual dialog and the process of individual learning and improvement, some of the impetuous for plagiarism might dissolve. The problem of overwhelming pressure has even be mentioned by those more expert in this area (whose work, incidentally, I discovered after having already written the above paragraph, once more raising the spectre of the impossibility of avoiding repetition of ideas and the problem with their commodification) "Students may also not be as personally interested in their own education vs. their career aspirations . . . Even students who are concerned about the learning part of their education may justify plagiarism based on the fear that others are already cheating, causing 'unfair competition' " (Fain & Bates, qtd. In Auer & Krupar, qtd. In Alberta U.) The ease with which one can plagiarize today is no doubt a contributer as well. There are literally hundreds of "custom term papers" websites online. These tend to be annoying when one is doing legitimate research, as they constantly pop up advertisements for their services -- for a struggling student, they are likely more seductive than annoying. Here one can have a custom paper written with very minimal risk; most advertise that they neither resell nor republish your paper, and traditional forms of plagiarism control cannot catch these custom papers. Charging between $12-48 a page (and paying their writers between $6-20 a page), these paper writing companies exploit students and their actual writers alike, convincing otherwise honest students to turn in entirely fraudulent papers while prostituting the abilities of unemployed academics on a global scale.
What responsibilities students might have in response to these issues is debatable. Obviously, a student has the responsibility not to be academically dishonest personally, for hypocrisy in all things is a grave wrong not even so much to others as to one's own self. From the most ancient of days, lying about one's self and betraying one's own nature has been considered a crime that destroys the soul. Of course, appealing to Ma'at and the threat of having one's heart eaten by a crocodile (Ellis; Budge) may seem a bit arcane for most students. Apart from the moral issues of honesty and the abstract value of truth, one is uncertain precisely what responsibilities accrue. The issue of not appropriating and expressing the general philosophies and ideas of others is oddly modern. For generations upon generations, it was not only common but even expected for one generation to begin by copying the last generation. Painters trained by making copies of masterpieces. Some of the greatest classical music is "Variations on a theme..." In which the melody itself is sampled, as it were,…