I recently had a student in one of my classes, who on an online exam problem that asked her to ‘explain in her own words’, had copied and pasted two paragraphs from a web site into her exam. Her copy-and-paste job was relatively easy to spot, since two of the words in her passage were words I had never used in lecture, indeed words which were not to be found in the textbook either. I plugged part of her passage into Google, and voila! I had the webpage she had snatched her answer from. I asked her to come see me in my office, so I could give her my usual spiel about plagiarism, how serious of an offense it is, and explain precisely why I had failed her on the exam. Her defense to me was that she had not plagiarized. She had merely failed to reference her sources.
She was right on one count. She indeed had failed to reference her sources. But that is the very definition of plagiarism, passing work off as if it were her own, when in fact it belongs to someone else.
The eighth commandment bids us: “Thou shalt not steal”. Physically we understand this to include all tangible objects which do not belong to us. But what about intellectual property, the world of words, thoughts, ideas, literature, poetry, drama, and music?
How is imitation related to plagiarism? And how does that relate to developing an extensive battery of vocabulary and syntactical options for one’s writing?
Plagiarism is defined as
“the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.” ~ Random House Dictionary
Plagiarism is a modern problem. Traditional folk tales and legends are rooted in borrowing and adapting tales from previous generations. Before modernity, the era of individualism, less attention was paid to giving credit to authorship, and more attention was paid to passing on materials and stories for the common good of humanity. Shakespeare wrote his greatest works as adaptations of stories from oral tradition and from ancient authors.
We want to learn to write in the classical tradition of Shakespearean writing, but we live in modern times, so we need to know, in modern terms, how closely plagiarism and imitation are related, lest we, as neoclassical scholars, are charged with plagiarism. We must learn and follow the rules of imitation: What to borrow? How much can be borrowed? And how to cite sources?
Imitation is not plagiarism. Being inspired by the works of others, their ideas, their arrangement, or their style is the time-honored root of creativity, the beginning of genius. However the imitator is obligated to acknowledge when and where he is borrowing from the works of others.
The most blatant and inexcusable kind of plagiarism is directly quoting material or taking entire essays or works without attributing to the author or passing work off as if it were our own. This is, in fact, a criminal offense when related to copyrighted material. At the university level, this type of plagiarism can lead to an investigation by the board of academic integrity, and the student, if convicted of the offense, may be expelled from the university. Our culture takes plagiarism very seriously, and so must we.