Archived Story

Call out writers who misrepresent work

Published 9:52am Friday, January 25, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

At the beginning of the spring semester, students who started college during the fall — following the traditional pattern — have learned many new things, about biology and history and writing essays that involve research, but they have also learned things about themselves, about their own potential and limitations.

Faculty have learned things, as well, in their own fields as they keep up with the latest research, but they have learned things about their students. I know I usually have, both good and bad.

Like plagiarism, for example. That’s when someone takes language or ideas from somebody else and claims them as their own. It’s a form of stealing, though the “object” being stolen is abstract. Cases of plagiarism make it into the news every so often, though usually only when someone famous or powerful gets caught. It’s even part of the storyline in a comic strip that appeared recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Stealing language and ideas is huge in the academic and scientific world, because it’s about how we earn our living (when we aren’t getting paid to teach in classrooms or via websites). So stealing “things” from our articles, essays or books feels the same to us as if someone had stolen a diamond ring or an automobile from somebody else.

One of the important things I learned about plagiarism when I first started teaching is that the way we approach incidents of plagiarism, including the definition we use, makes a difference. Students who are still learning about writing and research “steal” language and ideas unintentionally.

They don’t understand that, even when they are not using direct quotations, they still need to identify the original voice and mind behind a paraphrase or summary. Saying “book ’em, Dano” and sending them to the dean for punishment feels like the wrong thing to do.

Other times, students claim something as their own out of panic, which should sometimes mean a referral to the dean and a letter of reprimand in their file, but maybe not always. In my own personal experience, incidents of direct intentional cheating are pretty rare. But I rely on multiple drafts of writing assignments for evaluation and assessment, so it’s possible my own experience differs from other teachers. But when direct intentional cheating comes to light, just saying “book ’em, Dano” seems hardly harsh enough.

During those early years of teaching, I also learned that plagiarism of a very specific kind is nearly universal in classrooms: teachers “steal” assignments from the people teaching in the next classroom, from the books they read, or from conversations with colleagues at other institutions.

Of course hardly anybody defines it as stealing because we nearly always say where an assignment or classroom strategy came from — when we are asked. But it still feels like we end up doing something all the time for which students get punished.

Outside of classrooms and academic careers, plagiarism can break or at least harm political careers. Vice President Joe Biden has a strike against him here, as do many other politicians. Politics complicates the whole issue, however, because how are we to define or understand a “speech” a politician delivers in one legislative race, which is identical to one by a different politician in a distant part of the country? Is that plagiarism? Or is it using talking points from a political party or some other organization?

When members of the NRA or PETA send form letters to newspapers about gun or animal rights, are they “cheating” or have they chosen to use language that expresses their ideas so eloquently they can’t imagine saying it any other way?

In the academic world, where all we have to “sell” is our language and ideas, we can be very harsh when it comes to judging this kind of theft. But even within our “ivory towers” and “cloistered walkways” we need to be aware that motives matter, that inexperience matters. We probably need to be a bit more patient with students.

The world outside those “ivory cloisters,” on the other hand, probably needs to be more vigilant than it often is. People — writers of letters and givers of speeches — need to trust their own eloquence, and be called out for pretending the words of others are their own, even when they are gifted those words and the cause is noble.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.