Assumptions, Transgression and Plagiarism

In Stanley Fish’s post on plagiarism, he argues that plagiarism is not a “big moral deal” – a phrase I’m delighted he uses, even if I disagree with parts of his argument.  It deflates the usual hysteria about how terrible it is that kids these days just don’t care about proper attribution of sources because the Internet has ruined their brains.  This is a chance to actually think the issue through.

I think Fish is absolutely right that plagiarism only becomes a transgression against the backdrop of certain assumptions.  However, I think those assumptions are far broader than simply the disciplinary standards of journalism or academia.  In writing something down, there is an implied claim of ownership of the words and ideas.  Referencing the original author then lets the reader know that in this case, that assumption does not hold.  Citation holds additional meaning in particular disciplines, of course, such as allowing the reader to trace the ideas in the piece back to their sources.  Ultimately, though, if we didn’t have widespread cultural assumptions about the meaning of writing something down, we wouldn’t need to signal when those assumptions are violated.

Here’s a thought experiment.  Writing – and by extension authorship – could come with a set of rather different assumptions.  Imagine that everything written down was assumed to be the work of someone else.  If you were to propound your own ideas, it would need to be clearly signaled with a set of written markers, and failure to use those markers correctly could get you in serious trouble. “Kids these days are so arrogant,” one can imagine the hysterical articles claiming.  “They keep trying to pass their own work off as the work of other, smarter, more talented people.  They just don’t care about properly marking what’s their own.”  This isn’t even so terribly unrealistic; the documentary hypothesis suggests precisely this sort of reverse plagiarism, just for example.  (I remember hearing a similar argument made about Shakespeare’s positioning some of his dramatic innovations as traditional, but damned if I can find it again.  Anyone know?)

This is why I disagree with Fish.  The disciplinary values that he frames as “game rules” are not value neutral.  (Just ask Ian Bogost about the way rules can express particular critical positions!)  They are founded on a commonly understood meaning of what writing means, which itself ties to the notions of originality and single authorship that Fish tries to take out of the picture.  Saying that plagiarism is wrong because it violates the rules of the academic game is fine, but that only refers the issue to the assumptions on which the rules themselves are founded.  Will those rules change as our assumptions about written texts change?  Will they stay the same, becoming a hermetically sealed system?  Or will they serve as a brake on how our ideas shift, tying us back to individualism and changing our practices themselves?

It also bothers me that originality and single authorship are assumed to go together, and that if one doesn’t exist, it violates the other.  This assumption is by far my biggest problem with the paper.  People can be profoundly creative working in groups.  While it’s hard to assign a standard notion of authorship to any individual within the group, it hardly implies that just anyone can claim to have contributed, or that nothing new has been created.  In fact, one can look at the entire process of academic citation and referencing as a way of collaboratively producing original knowledge.  Each person working in a particular academic tradition has their own ideas, but they’re based on relationships and prior ideas.  The citation process is precisely a system to formalize and make visible this group relationship, in the interests of allowing one person to claim authorship of a single portion of the conversation.

Of course, these ideas about originality and single authorship are ones Fish reports on, not claims as his own.  I just wish he’d cited his sources more extensively, so I could respond to the people actually making this argument rather than Fish’s interpretation of their work!

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