Plagiarism ~ Wrong but also a Nuanced Concept

The other day I came across an interesting article by Jessica Lahey, in The Atlantic, entitled “What a plagiarizing 12 Year Old has in Common with a US Senator.” The article addresses the recent controversy surrounding Ph.D. candidate Zack Jud, sixth grader Lauren Arrington, and research involving lionfish. The thrust of the piece explains that when children make missteps, it is up to the adults surrounding them to point out the error, explain the reasoning and redirect the child toward accuracy and integrity.

When I was young, very young, I copied some illustrations from a picture book. My six or seven year-old drawing ability was not on par with the illustrator of the book, but I tried my best to copy the adorable hamster cartoons. They were depicted engaged in various activities like jumping rope, cooking and lounging at the beach. Pleased with my results I shared my drawings with my mom’s friend, an artist.  I recall her telling me how creative the pictures were, and although I did not know why, her compliments felt somewhat sour.

As a youngster, I had not yet learned the complexity or even the concept of plagiarism. I loved drawing and took a few children’s level art classes where I often copied lines drawn by a teacher, or was encouraged to mimic the shapes and shades of famous works with my own colored pencils. I used many images for drawing practice – family photos, magazine ads, National Geographic spreads. Children learn by watching and imitating. In copying anything I enjoyed, including book illustrations, I was simply trying to understand how to make something that I admired. But eventually comes an awaking to the ideas of personal creativity, ownership of ideas, and credit.

I later understood my discomfort with the praise I received for “my” hamster drawings. I had copied the illustrations as a means to improve my technical abilities, while the friend instead praised the idea behind the drawings, which was not my own. I discerned the difference when I read a book about Helen Keller detailing the controversy surrounding “The Frost King” a published story written by a young Keller, but later revealed to be strikingly similar to “Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby. I suddenly understood – ideas can belong to people, and taking someone’s idea is like taking their car or dog.

As a senior in college, a fellow English major and I gave a small talk about plagiarism to teachers at a local high school. The internet was fast becoming students’ research tool of choice and Wikipedia was catching on, so the teachers wanted to be able to keep pace. If students were going to google research topics, the school was going to google their final term papers right back. We focused our presentation on how to detect planned, intentional, internet-based plagiarism. We did not consider why eleventh graders might be stealing writings about the battle of Belmont, or appropriating lines of E.E. Cummings – only how to catch them. There was also little discussion of why plagiarism is such a threat to integrity, especially in young adults who are presented with new ideas daily, and are learning to differentiate for themselves, and others, the distinction between their own work and another’s.

I agree with Ms. Lahey, and others, including Jud himself, who have written or spoken recently about this lionfish research debacle, that parents have the responsibility to teach this concept to their kids (as well as a myriad of other things we expect them to learn as they reach maturity). Throw teachers in there too, because they often uncover the indiscretion and dole out the penalty.  But just how should this lesson be conveyed to children?

We all agree that a person’s ideas are her own, and that taking those ideas for profit, or holding them out as your own without credit to the source, is wrong. We have copious amounts of intellectual property law to back this up. It is a black and white concept that appears easy to explain: plagiarism is like stealing and stealing is wrong. Here is something to consider though, if you unpack the idea of using unoriginal work, many gradations of gray are revealed.

For instance, in a law firm, the phrase “don’t reinvent the wheel” is often invoked. Meaning, if Fred down the hall wrote a motion on the same topic last week, why not use Fred’s motion and just make a few edits? The lawyer does not then footnote his motion attributing any turns of phrase to Fred. However, when it comes to referencing statues, regulations or case law, lawyers carefully and specifically cite each reference. The critical legal information is cited, but the common practice of sharing work within an office abrogates the need to credit Fred, even though motion number two borrowed entire paragraphs of Fred’s writing. This method prioritizes time-saving and presenting the best argument, over protection of any one person’s creativity in their work within a firm. On the other hand, such a practice would be completely unacceptable for a final paper in a college course.

Other arenas where using another’s work or ideas is objectionable are academia, invention and writing, among others. We all know that there are many themes that have been written about time and time again – man v. nature for instance. It is acceptable to write an original story with this theme, but wrong to copy words from The Old Man and the Sea. And then there are new works that are retellings of prior works – My Fair Lady and Pygmalion, as an example.

As children grow into adults, immersing themselves in different environments as they learn – academic, a specific profession, a field of work – they experience context based norms for crediting others work. As copyright law shows, it is possible for several people to have the same or very similar idea separately, yet we also want to protect ideas and the people who have them and develop them first. It’s a tricky concept for kids (and perhaps even some adults) but it is important that we all learn to respect the work of others, and use it to grow, but not as our own.







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