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Composition Forum 19, Spring 2009

Eisner, Caroline, and Martha Vicinus. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008. 269pp.

Howard, Rebecca Moore, and Amy E. Robillard. Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2008. 181pp.

Marsh, Bill. Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007. 176pp.

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Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder

Many scholars would agree that we can now identify “plagiarism studies” as a field of inquiry, though I wonder if the authors of these texts would argue if we should, given that they are part of a move to deconstruct the differences between plagiarism and acceptable textual production. Nonetheless, the number of articles and books that focus specifically on plagiarism issues has increased in the last decade and a half, roughly corresponding to the rise of the internet, or what was called the “information superhighway” in the early 1990s. At the time, educators and pundits reacted to the problem of “too much text” by assuming students’ morals were no match for an easily found research paper. The critical response, led by Rebecca Moore Howard, was much more sensible and bridged the gap between what we thought we knew about writing and what we were being confronted with: digital rhetoric, new media production, hypertext, widespread electronic composition, collaborative knowledge-building, and a host of intertextual practices barely on most instructors’ radar screens only a few years previous.

Since the initial flurry of excitement surrounding plagiarism’s relation to the internet, things have calmed slightly. Now, we seem to be moving through a second wave of “new” plagiarism studies, one that looks back on earlier critical forays with some perspective. The response by some recent efforts, including the books reviewed here, has been twofold: some have begun to fill in gaps in previous research while others have taken to criticizing earlier work. Perhaps influenced by the critical movement on intellectual property and copyright law, all of these texts strive toward a sort of “regime change” as it relates to plagiarism discourse. Simple ethical admonitions, “thief-catching,” and talk of “plagiarism-proof” assignments are vestiges of current-traditional methods still in wide acceptance in the academy. The recently published texts reviewed here remove plagiarism from what Michael Grossberg calls the “discourse of disgust” and into an acknowledgment that plagiarism and accepted writing practices are two sides of the same coin, replete with economic, cultural, discursive, and ideological implications. In brief, each of these texts are successful in changing our perspective on plagiarism, though the impact of such books both inside and outside school walls has yet to emerge.

With the broadest scope of these three texts, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age addresses the larger range of issues located within the realm of authorship, intellectual property, and copyright law. As the title suggests, the collection is divided into three main sections—originality, imitation, and plagiarism—though these categories are less than precise, as the editors are surely aware. The chapters come from a 2005 cross-disciplinary conference on writing hosted at the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan, and as is so often the case with conference essays, they refuse to fit neatly into predetermined categories, but instead cover a range of topics related to originality and textual composition. These traits make the collection either somewhat ungainly in terms of direct focus or effectively broad in scope and range—take your pick.

Eisner and Vicinus claim that “at its core, this is a collection for anyone interested in the process of learning” (2). As such, it is perhaps best fit for a reader looking for entrance into the wealth of thinking on current plagiarism-related subjects in rhetoric and composition and college writing scholarship. Because of this broad focus, perhaps, and because of the origin of the essays, they tend not to offer much in the way of practical pedagogy but keep their attention toward the analysis of writing practices. The ideal readers appear to be educators interested in the main arguments of plagiarism research, but not those who are already aware, for example, of distinctions between plagiarism and copyright.

Because of this intended breadth, Eisner and Vicinus are able to stretch the bounds of their collection and include pieces from those outside of the discipline of rhetoric and composition and include chapters like Gilbert Omenn’s analysis of publishing in the life sciences and Gordon Kane’s explanation of the specific authorship and publishing model taking hold in physics research. Such research offers insight into authorship models across the disciplines, thereby providing analysis on the culture of writing throughout academia and the professional world. These articles come from the “originality” section, which focuses more on general education and authorship studies. One could make the assumption that so much has been written criticizing individual authorship as of late that a focus on the topic of originality would better serve to expand critical analyses of authorship by looking for breadth, not depth. Which is not to say that these articles are not insightful and investigative, but that their selection reveals the collection’s drive toward coverage of a large body of work, not narrow, penetrating analysis.

Some of the moments where selections investigate deeper into specific topics include several under the heading of “imitation.” Anis Bawarshi’s “Genre as Forms of In(ter)vention” reveals the ways that understandings of genre influence the “complex interaction between imitation and invention” (79). He continues his study on rhetorical genre and uses the tenets of speech-act theory to explain how genres function in a writer’s comprehension of the writing situation and the process of invention. Finding that “uptake is a site of both invention and intervention,” Bawarshi locates writers’ uptake of genre convention as a “normalized transaction between imitation and invention” (87-88). His analysis of both student writing and I, Rigoberta Menchú provides context for his claim that genre take-up represents an important moment in readers’ expectations for distinguishing between imitation and invention. Exposing the “points of transformation” when genres shift and expectations are called into question can lead to effective teachable moments (88).

Likewise, Christiane Donahue’s “When Copying is not Copying” extends the location of how we understand “common” practices in academic writing by comparing them to French composition theories. In France, writing is taught primarily within a WAC or WID framework where literary texts are seen as “revered aesthetic objects, and nonliterary texts are objects of appropriation” (100). Because of this stance toward literature, paraphrase is often seen as a dilution or poor reduction of the original language. The deference toward what we would call belles lettres is clear, but such a formulation shifts concerns away from plagiarism and toward discursive engagement. Donahue offers “a theoretical-linguistic frame for describing this relationship with the term reprise-modification,” which describes the way in which texts are used by French undergraduates (91). Essentially, Donahue compellingly argues that an exploration of a different cultural economy of citation, credit, and writing can provide perspective on what our current focus on plagiarism bypasses—engaging students in the disciplines that matter to them.

Amid a number of articles that detail larger cultural, political, legal, and economic issues related to plagiarism, and some that recount individual experiences with plagiarism cases and institutional practices, the “plagiarism” section offers several insightful essays. In “Academic Plagiarism and the Limits of Theft,” Stephan Senders examines student assumptions about plagiarism and their view that students “steal” credit when they take the words and phrases of another writer. He identifies—importantly, in my opinion—the gap between administrative views, educators’ opinions, and changing norms of morality in student populations. Joel Bloch’s “Plagiarism Across Cultures” similarly addresses the gaps in critical writing on plagiarism in cross-cultural contexts and in second-language writing. He exposes the assumption that cultures with a “collectivist nature devalue the Romantic concept of authorship prevalent in the West and places a greater value on imitation” (219-220). Bloch argues insightfully that there has never been a monolithic “Chinese perspective on imitation, originality, and plagiarism” and that Western educators need to focus less on oversimplifying how international students understand citation practices and more on teaching the logic of Western citation systems and rules for intertextuality (228).

Eisner and Vicinus’ collection, then, is one apparently dedicated to establishing breadth rather than depth as its primary role. The essays are gathered to offer the reader an entrance into many of the concurrent discussions regarding plagiarism, writing, and education. But the essays here also serve to fill in some of the gaps left by earlier plagiarism studies. We can see the desire of text exposed in the final essay, “Framing Plagiarism,” by Linda Adler-Kassner, Chris M. Anson, and Rebecca Moore Howard. They articulate a response to the so-called “epidemic of plagiarism” sweeping across our schools—an epidemic aided by too much technology and too many immoral or naïve students, hastened only by technology-based plagiarism detection services (231-232). Using George Lakoff’s explanation that naturalized narratives become frames through which we understand events, they argue that we should re-take the frame of plagiarism back from its current location in popular culture and news media representations (232). Instead of teaching citations conventions only, Alder-Kassner et al. argue for teaching the context of “genres and texts in specific contexts” in order to “change the frame around, and the incidence of, plagiarism in academic settings” (244).

Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism attempts to expand the conversation on plagiarism by offering a number of investigations on a wide number of academic and non-academic writing locations. The next step, I suppose, is to then apply some of these investigations into real world curricula and expand the theoretical approach used for some of the investigations here. While the collection does not offer many specific resources, pedagogies, or strategies for turning this frame around, its strengths lie in its ability to cover a wide range of topics, and as it stands, nicely complements the depth of Howard and Robillard’s collection.

In Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies, we can also see Howard and Robillard reframing the discussion of plagiarism, but with a different focus than in Eisner and Vicinus’ collection. Instead of looking for a broad selection of topics on the textual practices of originality, imitation, and plagiarism, Howard and Robillard sought out chapters that, combined, help to argue that “plagiarism must be pluralized if we are to ethically and productively apply our nuanced knowledges about writing to this form of authorship” (3). The essays here “share in the culture-wide concern about plagiarism,” but wrestle definitions of plagiarism from assumed universal coherence and restore understandings of textual practices to the people involved in individual writing contexts (3). In doing so, Howard and Robillard’s collection creates a stronger focus, and a more direct pedagogical one, though this appearance is aided by the fact that they include only ten essays, instead of Eisner and Vicinus’ nineteen. Perhaps because of the narrower lens, their collection achieves a kind of linear logic, moving from a focus on larger contexts and representations of plagiarism to specific locations to pedagogical strategies.

Amy Robillard’s chapter, “Situating Plagiarism as a Form of Authorship,” offers what might be one of the most direct and useful claims about plagiarism and pedagogy around. In it she offers a model of co-investigative practice, a critical pedagogy for analyzing that for which the instructor does not have ready-made answers. She explains how her syllabus helps students come to realize that plagiarism is a verb and a noun – not only a writing process, but also an object of study. Working with students to understand the location and power of plagiarism in Western economies of credit, capitalism, and authorship, Robillard boldly claims:

Devoting pedagogical attention to understanding the reasons students plagiarize is a futile undertaking. The reasons students plagiarize are as unavailable to us as are the reasons students choose to do their own work....[T]his is not to say that we cannot trust what students tell us; rather, we must remember that their responses are contingent and contextual. (30)

Considering that so much plagiarism writing in rhetoric and composition from the last 30 years focuses on lore about students, Robillard’s claim is a breath of fresh air. But, of course, she does care what students think about plagiarism; she simply does not believe, and rightly so, that students will offer fully transparent information as to their motives. Her course content is one we should all consider, as textual practice in its various forms, plagiarism included, should be a useful focus for the composition classroom.

Another essay to offer a complex curricular strategy is T. Kenny Fountain and Lauren Fitzgerald’s “Thou Shalt Not Plagiarize,” which elaborates on a very specific context. Looking at religious institutions, they note the tendency toward moralistic stances on plagiarism. Such a position often does “nothing to teach students how to use texts in the sophisticated and authoritative ways that academic disciplines require of them” (102). Understanding such a particular environment for plagiarism, Fountain and Fitzgerald are careful not to similarly leave a gap in their analysis and clearly articulate a strategy centered on communitarian notions of belonging and textual authority that can be adapted for a number of education contexts. While some composition scholars have suggested that in order to compel students not to plagiarize we need to engage them more deeply in a particular academic discourse, few offer realizable strategies instructors can use. To their credit, instead of gesturing toward the failure of pedagogy with the wave of a hand and a vague call for change, Fountain and Fitzgerald offer a specific, adaptable model.

That this collection offers something more than a gesture is one of its two main strengths—the other being the range of locations where plagiarism and authorial practices are considered. For example, Kami Day provides insight into plagiarism and the community college, locating the number of challenges instructors face when in the midst of a heavy teaching load. Revisiting the fear some academics have about writing centers and co-authorship, Tracy Hamler Carrick argues that some collaborative, co-authored writing should be valued for the larger conversation about authorship it should spark. Sandra Jamieson’s chapter on plagiarism policies asks policy writers to focus on positive language use, not misuse, and find a middle ground on which we can develop clear language about disciplinarity. Rebecca Moore Howard’s own piece asks for further attention to complexities surrounding both graduate students who plagiarize and professors’ relationship with graduate students and their writing. Enumerating some of the recent scandals involving faculty who have plagiarized from their graduate researchers, Howard suggests that we address the issues head on, engaging with students’ legal, authorial, infrastructural, and educational rights.

In the context of the different academic spaces where plagiarism is misunderstood, misrepresented, or misapplied, we can see the real power of Howard and Robillard’s text. As Kathleen Blake Yancey explains in “Beyond Plagiarism,” we need to look beyond older definitions of acceptable and unacceptable textual behavior and stop being concerned about branding plagiarists as if there were hard and fast rules with which to do so. “In what is now a postmodern ‘remix culture,’” Yancey writes, “plagiarism seems both oxymoronic and anachronistic” (158). Instead of clinging to old models and fretting over the definitions of inappropriate writing they spawn, we need to admit that the textual practices of students are changing and that out understanding of their work should change as well. For her part, Yancey offers an analysis of our current conflict-based research model, suggesting a new model based on collaboration and conversation in its place.

Key to understanding this collection, then, is understanding that Robillard’s essay in Eisner and Vicinus’ collection is realized within this text. Claiming that a new frame should be established for understanding plagiarism concerns is one thing, but the studies here makes that claim into the basis for a theoretical shift. Instead of complaining about the time that plagiarists’ “steal” time from us, or designing “plagiarism-proof” assignments, as some have done in the past, these writers are not interested in treating incidents of plagiarism like a crime or a symptom. They discuss it like it is—a constructed authorship practice lamented as a crisis and perpetuated by political, economic, and cultural paradigms. Bruce Horner supports this view in the afterward when he argues that “monolithic understandings and approaches to plagiarism will not do” and neither will challenges to monolithic views on plagiarism (171-172). He identifies the “developmentalist response” to plagiarism, which assumes that errors in correct authorship can be understood as “stages in writers’ development,” and the “archipelago response,” which assumes that differences in writing practices can be linked to differences in discourse communities (172). Both responses treat plagiarism as an isolated/isolating concept, fail to address the cultural assumption of a plagiarism crisis, and “collude in eliding readers’ labor in producing recognition of plagiarism by accepting its ‘textualization’” (173). Instead of simply carrying on with these models, as Howard and Robillard suggest, we need to directly engage with the specific, underlying contexts in which we see plagiarism charges occur.

If both Eisner and Vicinus’ and Howard and Robillard’s collections fill in some of the gaps from previous plagiarism research, Bill Marsh’s Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education stands as more of a focused critique of our current plagiarism “crisis.” Instead of looking to inform the reader seeking knowledge on current plagiarism issues, or engage different contexts in order to change the terms of unique plagiarism discussions, Marsh looks to trace the discourses that shape plagiarism definitions across time. To his credit, Marsh acknowledges the dangers in choosing a “long, transhistorical view” on plagiarism, and he caveats his approach arguing that such a historical perspective is necessary “in order to identify a set of thematic concerns that have informed and continue to inform debates on the topic, particularly in higher education” (2). This method affords Marsh the ability to create a narrative that identifies how cultural forces interact to shape powerful institutional regulation of textual production. And the results are impressive: Marsh creates a coherent, if not somewhat circuitous, analysis of plagiarism through a number of interrelated locations. He first examines plagiarism in recent publishing controversies, then heads to the university to understand how plagiarism is treated in textbooks and writing assignments, stopping along the way to develop and historicize the metaphor of “alchemy”—hence his title. Marsh ends by critiquing the economies of internet plagiarism, considering how plagiarism detection services define the act of plagiarism, and the plagiarist, before wrestling with conceptions of the modernist author in a post-media world. His text’s most insightful argument, though, comes from his analysis of the many ways we have found to remediate students in order to fit them more neatly into economies of textual production.

In considering the number of ways in which plagiarism has been defined over the years, elements of Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or, the Love of Technology (Trans. 1996) come to mind. In particular, Latour’s enumeration of the many possible definitions of the Aramis rail system (“Aramis is…, Aramis is…”) sounds awfully similar to the many definitions scholars, teachers, and students offer for plagiarism. But like the results of Latour’s search for who “killed” the Aramis project, we have no identifiable subjects to blame for the awkward and oft-misapplied definitions of plagiarism that thrive in today’s “plagiarism crisis” debates. Marsh’s response to these definitions seems almost practical in its insightfulness; he takes a theoretical approach on loan from Foucault that we can see in his explication of the politics of authorship:

Where the law distinguishes discrete objects in order to defend intellectual property claims, literary conventions and writing pedagogies create plagiarists and plagiarism in accordance with strict aesthetic and ethical codes of conduct. Plagiarism must be understood, then, not solely as an individual failure to comply but rather as a socially meaningful activity calibrated—as is authentic authorship itself—against very specific signifying forms. (34)

In order to understand how plagiarism is shaped by legal, ethical, pedagogical, social, and technological forces, Marsh considers plagiarism as the undesired, but always produced result of larger cultural forces. Such a theoretical strategy allows him to map out different mechanisms against each other and sets up his powerful conclusions about plagiarism and the academy.

The chapters that deal with and identify elements of student writing within the university system are some of the strongest here. In these, Marsh identifies the rise of university populations, the development of state schools, the growth of standardized curricula, and focus upon written performance as a marker of ability. The “new university,” what Bill Readings calls a “posthistorical university,” shifted into a factory model where teachers trained students in the “handling of information” (57). Such an environment relied heavily on prescribed rules for attribution, but also on textbooks and handbooks that regulated textual production. Teachers may have benefited from prescriptive texts, but such texts also helped to solidify a narrow, current-traditional definition of plagiarism still with us today. When students failed to write acceptably under these modernist definitions of plagiarism, the academy responded with the research paper. Initially designed as a remedy against students’ citation transgressions and as a way to train students against plagiarism practices, today the student research paper is often the location of plagiarism charges (62). Marsh’s illumination of the institutional discourses at play in creating both the problem and the solution is probably the most successful part of his text, as it reveals the power of his theoretical approach to plagiarism.

In contrast, his analysis of the theme of alchemy within definitions of plagiarism remains insightful, but less powerful. Marsh finds that plagiarism has been equated with a failed alchemy, that is, the failure of a writer to effectively transform the ideas or words of another into something more valuable—reifying what are essentially romantic notions of the genius author (67-68). Modernist versions of plagiarism accuse students of failing to digest or transform the words of others properly, but the metaphor speaks about process of reading as much as it does about writing. Marsh clearly finds this metaphor compelling, and it is, but what understanding the metaphor offers pedagogy or education is unclear. So much in education theory can be described as alchemical, not only reading and writing. The alchemic metaphor appears to address the same “field of the unknown” that a black box signifies in cognitive studies; it functions as a way to articulate that which we have difficulty articulating. Marsh is right about the presence of the metaphor, but the full scope of alchemy’s place in the “new university” is perhaps not yet visible.

Marsh ends with two chapters on the analysis of plagiarism detection services and the role they play in regulating and authorizing certain types of texts and training both students and teachers to produce those texts. The claim that the “managed university finds” for-profit plagiarism-detection services “an “academic-capitalist” partner in the collective fight against textual deviance” is a strong one that accurately locates the coordination between universities asking for textual products and plagiarism services feeding off of the enforced textual production rules (146). Marsh ends by arguing that “in today’s institutions of higher learning, the time may have come to turn those [plagiarism remediation] techniques around—literally and figuratively—to better serve today’s post-media, multimodal learners” (156). Rather than specific suggestions, Marsh offers a nugget of wisdom: we need to “turn around” the techniques of plagiarism enforcement. I take this phrase to mean that instead of negative enforcement, we need to create positive strategies to help students improve their writing in an intertextual, new media world. While such insight falls short of Marsh’s claim to focus on solutions, it offers emphatic advice for future studies.

Soon, I expect, we should hear from other academics picking up on the threads of critical analysis started by the writers represented here. If they are out to change the discourse on plagiarism, the job is long and difficult, but they have provided those concerned with the teaching and practices of composition, rhetoric, and communication with valuable resources that should inform and refine scholarship. Soon, hopefully, the caveat that Bill Marsh uses in his preface will no longer be necessary:

It is customary in books about plagiarism to begin with an apology and an immediate retraction. The apology usually goes something like this: plagiarism is an old topic, treated to exhaustion elsewhere, and this book cannot, and perhaps dares not, offer anything new. The subsequent retraction, as one might expect, is grounded in the corollary claim that the subject of plagiarism, while certainly well traveled, is nonetheless worthy of further study if only because it continues to nag, plague, and inspire those who take even the slightest peek at its history. (vii)

While we do want plagiarism to be taken seriously, we should understand both the larger issues and discrete contexts within which all writing happens. When we can put aside our collective compulsion to remedy the problem, as it were, and instead change that which defines and produces the problem, we will have accomplished what these new texts desire.

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