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Those of us who write and  are not digital natives will remember a most excellent piece of technology called a typewriter. Anyone under 30 may well never have used one, nor even seen one, bizarre as that may seem to we “oldies.”

The typewriter was a predecessor to the word processor and was a mechanical device that printed letters on paper when you pressed the keys on a keyboard. When you hit a key, a small metal block with a letter embossed on it would hammer against a piece of paper through an intervening inked ribbon.  Here’s a short clip of someone using a typewriter, especially for our younger readers:

One of my first purchases when I went to university in the late 1970’s was a Smith-Corona blue typewriter, which I used to make my reports and essays more legible because my handwriting was never all that good. It still isn’t. At the time it was pretty much cutting edge, and, if memory serves, it had two colors; black and red. Cutting edge indeed!

Still, the act of creating an essay was laborious, especially if an error was made because there was, of course, no delete key available. The process of deletion involved using a white correction fluid to cover the mistake, then, once you’d let it dry, retype the intended word – or even sentence.

The temptation to make life easier by copying whole chunks of text from articles and books was always there. However, when you were “pulling an all-nighter” [1] it was actually easier to hammer out authentic text than copied, although there was always an element of rephrasing going on.

The act of taking whole chunks of someone else’s work is called plagiarism, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as;

The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.

The first written example dates from 1621 in Richard Montagu’s Diatribæ upon the first part of the late history of tithes in the phrase, “Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?” Yet only a few years earlier we see the word plagiary also being used, and so both plagiarism and plagiary existed together.

Both words can be traced to the Latin plagiarius, a person who abducts the child or slave of another, or even a kidnapper, seducer, or literary thief. The Latin plagium means “kidnapping,: and so the modern notion of plagiarism fits well with the metaphor of “kidnapping an idea.”

The word may derive from the earlier Latin plaga meaning “net” or “snare,” or perhaps the earlier ancient Greek πλάγιος, which means oblique or slanted. Either way, it’s almost poetic to describe the stealing of someone’s work as a kidnapping of ideas. It almost makes it sound fair.

The Internet, with its easy access to text, has now made plagiarism much easier. Stunningly easier. As bloggers cut and paste wholesale from online newspapers, publishers are scrambling to know what to do. When does “fair use” become outright plagiarism? And how do you stop it when tossing bits and bytes across the Net takes no more than a click of a button and can be routed through computers across the entire world, many of which sit outside the jurisdiction of law enforcement?

The “plague of plagiarism” [2] is with us for the foreseeable future. And in case you were wondering, sadly plague does not come from the same source as plagiarism, despite it sounding so similar. The Latin plaga also exists as a word meaning “wound” or “gash” or “strike,” which is different from the “net” meaning of plagiarism. This meaning also carries the association with a wound or blow due to some form of divine retribution, hence the link to the modern meaning of plague.

plagiarism

It's a crime

Footnotes
[1] An “all-nighter,” as the word suggests, is a mode of action favored by procrastinators, idlers, and party-loving students, who wait until the night before an essay is due to actually write it. Knowing that your work had to handed in at a specific time less than 24-hours away focuses your concentration wonderfully. Much as I tried to avoid these things, I found that drinking copious amounts of tea would help the process along, and for that very reason I bought myself a pint mug to make large drinks. On a tough essay, I could go through up to four pints of tea before I’d finished.

[2] To avoid the charge of being a plagiarist, I have to ‘fess up to the fact that although I came up with the phrase “plague of plagiarism” on my own, it sounded so appropriate that I couldn’t believe no-one else had ever used it. Not surprisingly, it isn’t unique.  A Google search popped up 77,800 hits, with the first being to an article by Dr. Irving Hexham from the University of Calgary. In it, he says that to avoid the charge of being a plagiarist you should cite where you find text. So here’s the link to Dr. Irving’s original essay, The Plague of Plagiarism.

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