The accidental plagiarist

plagiarism1Apparently, Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.”  The exact origin of the quote is actually in dispute; some attribute it to T.S. Eliot.  Regardless of who originally said it, one thing seems certain: what works for great artists does not necessarily work for the average high school student.  What Picasso (or Eliot) might have called great art, most high school teachers (to say nothing of college instructors, university professors, the news media, and the publishing industry) call plagiarism.

Overt plagiarism–in which a student presents as their own a piece of writing written by someone else–is a serious issue, especially in universities.  The internet has made the problem far worse than it used to be, with websites openly offering complete essays on a wide range of topics; just download, cut and paste, add your name at the top, and voila!

However, a far more tricky problem to deal with is the problem of what is often called accidental plagiarism, in which students genuinely believe they are being original, but inadvertently steal another person’s words.  They are plagiarising, but they don’t realize it.

Let me illustrate with an example.  In my English 11 class, I often teach a 2005 essay by the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain called “Chasing the Evanescent Glow”.  It is a short, poetic, powerful meditation on the nature of happiness (if you would like to read it in its entirety, you can download it from the “Student Resources/Texts We Have Studied” page of this website). O’Faolain wrote the essay while living a solitary life in a cottage on the west coast of Ireland, a brief, yet lonely period of her life when she had only her dog for companionship.  Untitled

Here is a sample passage from the essay:

“In the afterglow I hurry across the grass to the shed to fill my basket with sods of turf for the fire.  The dog throws herself in front of me, quivering at the amazing possibility that we’re going for a walk–not one dog molecule of skepticism kept back to protect herself with.  She lives entirely in the present moment.  But happiness is conscious of the before and after–it is the brimming water in the bowl of a fountain that the slightest disturbance will spill.” (She’s an amazing writer, isn’t she?)

Sometimes I will ask my students to explain how O’Faolain’s dog’s understanding of happiness differs from her own. To that question, it is not unusual for me to receive answers like this:

“O’Faolain’s dog lives entirely in the present moment, but O’Faolain herself thinks that happiness is about the before and after.  The dog doesn’t even have a single molecule of skepticism but for O’Faolain happiness is like water in a fountain that even a small disturbance will spill, something fragile and easily lost.”

Students who write answers like this are usually amazed to hear that they have, technically, committed plagiarism.  The phrases “lives entirely in the present moment”, “the before and after”, “molecule of skepticism”, and “disturbance will spill” are all stolen from O’Faolain.  Yet students who do this aren’t trying to get away with something; rather, they are simply ignorant of the fact that borrowing phrases from another writer is considered plagiarism, even if the author whose phrases you are borrowing is the subject of your composition.

When I point this out to students, they sometimes respond that they can fix the problem by changing some of the words.  So instead of writing “molecule of skepticism” they write “ounce of cynicism”.  This isn’t much better, though, because although they are no longer plagiarising O’Faolain’s words, they are still plagiarising her structure.  They end up with awkward answers like this:

“O’Faolain’s dog lives completely in the current instant, but O’Faolain herself thinks that happiness is about the past and future.  The dog doesn’t even have a single ounce of cynicism but for O’Faolain happiness is like liquid in a pool that even a tiny shaking will spill, something fragile and easily lost.”

Painful.  Because now the passage doesn’t even have the benefit of O’Faolain’s well-chosen phrases, yet it is still plagiarising her form.

One of the hardest things for student writers to learn is to compose original phrases using their own diction and structure.  Don’t simply copy the writer’s words and then change a few key terms using your trusty thesaurus.  Write something completely new.  darkandstormy_5013This is, of course, especially hard for students who are not experienced or confident writers to begin with, but it’s an extremely important lesson for them to learn before they enter college, university, or the business or professional world.  Theft of words is, in some circles, almost as serious a matter as theft of property.  The sooner students learn this, the better.