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On plagiarism

Today's New York Times follows up on the recent public fury over Stephen Ambrose's apparent plagiarism with an article on how researchers are inventing techniques to detect "plagiarism" by using computers to compare texts. It's an interesting piece, but these techniques seem to miss the point.

Their purpose is mainly to determine the degree to which the language of one text mimics another. One of them, using something called the "Cloze procedure," actually tests the author: Every fifth word of the text is removed, and the (alleged) author is asked to replace them correctly. If he or she in fact wrote them, the idea is, he should be successful.

It's a lot of effort to go to to uncover a practice that, while offensive, has relatively little bearing on the value or integrity of a scholarly work. Sure, these techniques can be valuable for deterring and detecting high school and college students who are tempted to steal papers off the Internet. But that's not plagiarism so much as it's cheating — those students won't ever publish those works as their own; heck, they probably won't even have to defend the ideas in them in class.

The true test of plagiarism must be the originality of a scholar's ideas and research, not the words he uses to present them. It's wrong — and unacceptable — to publish someone else's words as your own, but in a scholarly text (as opposed to fiction or poetry), where a book or paper is essentially a vehicle for a theory or result and not an end in itself, recycling phrases isn't deceitful so much as it's crude or sloppy.

Ambrose, for instance, actually cites the sources from which he apparently lifted several phrases, word for word — he simply fails to put quotes around the words he took from them. Clearly he should be chastised, and his future publishers more wary. His integrity as a writer is now dubious, and rightly so. But his integrity as a scholar is, if anything, less in question — he even credited the sources of his ideas and information when those credits made it easier to discover that he'd copied their words.

But this fact was largely lost in all the outrage. "Plagiarism" is a button word; push it and some people will automatically call for the offender to be fired and ostracized, his works expunged from the scholarly record. Such a response, while unavoidable, is hardly commensurate with the crime in cases like this, however.

Using text comparisons to define plagiarism, as opposed to cheating or carelessness, takes us in the wrong direction. It will uncover only the least villainous of offenders, but punish them as harshly as the worst. We should define a thinker's integrity by his ideas, not his choice of words, and find a more suitable response for those who just have to learn to be more careful with their words.


Update: The Christian Science Monitor offers a good survey of some other reactions within academia.

January 26, 2002 12:28 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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