Wednesday, May 8, 2013

When is copying not plagiarism?

Sometime ago (just after the 2001 general election), I was listening to a senior adviser to Tony Blair at a non-academic public policy conference. He started saying some things that were quite critical of the promises New Labour had made, and implemented, in education, and I found myself, at first, thinking how sensible and well-thought out the criticisms were. Then, I started thinking that I recognized the language in which they were couched, and, eventually, realised that the reason it all sounded so good was that it had been taken, more or less verbatim, from something I had written. My first, momentary, response was to be irritated by this—but, once I remembered where I had written it (the cover story of a magazine that was distributed widely at the previous Labour Party conference) I was, simply, pleased. Of course, he is not going to cite me in a speech, and if you write in that sort of venue you should be hoping that somebody like him will take your words and ideas and make them their own.

If an academic had done that, I would have remained irritated (for about 20 minutes, I imagine, I really don’t care that much), and I think that it would have counted as plagiarism. If a student did the same thing I would regard it as serious academic misconduct. But in the context it seemed just fine.

I remembered this during a discussion with a grad student recently.

Grad Student is going to be the lead instructor in a large lecture course that I, also, teach. We were discussing how to develop a syllabus and teaching materials, and the topics to be covered, and I observed that my (primitive) syllabuses, and plenty of my powerpoints and class exercises are all deposited online, accessible to the whole department, and I suggested (not very modestly, I admit) taking those on the topics to be covered and adapting them as GS sees fit. GS looked horrified -- "But that feels like plagiarism". I understand the impulse, but it doesn't seem at all that way to me. As a teacher your job is to devote your time energy and effort to ensuring that the students learn. Obviously, it would be impossible to give a lecture (well) that you hadn't already put a lot of thought into. But starting from and adapting a good template saves time and thought, which can be turned, instead, to thinking about what questions to ask the students, developing thinking exercises for them, even just to meeting and talking to them (save 5 minutes on prep, and get to the room 5 minutes earlier than you would and chat with the students who are there). I'm proud of some of the teaching materials I've developed (eg this and this) and it really gives me a thrill to know that other people use them (without attribution); probably more than it does seeing my work cited in academic research (with attribution).

I've been trying to figure out why it seems to obvious that Government Adviser was doing nothing wrong, and Grad Student would be doing nothing wrong, by taking my material and using it without attribution, whereas another academic who did the same would be doing something wrong. It seems to me it is something to do with the role. The job of academic qua academic is to produce new ideas and present them in a way that makes it easy to see how they fit with existing ideas. But the job of government adviser/politician is to make use of existing ideas in improving their policies, and spread those ideas; and the job of the teacher (and academic qua teacher) is simply to make learning happen. It just doesn't matter whether the audience understands the provenance of those ideas or the materials being used.

So. Share your teaching materials as widely as possible and, when developing a course, feel free to take anything you can from anywhere you want, as long as it is legal.

(X posted at CT)


  1. I wonder if the difference is in the reader's assumption. When I hear a politician speak, I don't assume that the words or even the thoughts are his own. At a minimum he had a speech-writer, and more than that he is supposed to represent the best of his supporters. And even as an undergraduate, I had the vague awareness that when my prof lectured on Kant's Groundwork she wasn't the only one doing it, even at my university. When she gave the "standard" interpretation, I took her to be representing not just her own thoughts but that of people in general. That vague awareness has only increased with my time in grad school.

    On the other hand, a student paper is supposed to show the individual's mastery of the content and (in the best of all possible worlds) an original contribution to the field - maybe not totally new but something that the student wasn't exposed to in class or in research, even if it's only to say "Dr. Smith says X and I find his case convincing because..." . When he doesn't properly cite his sources she's in effect presenting some idea as hers when it's really not. And that's doubly so for the journal articles we write, where that expectation is even more definite.

    You can't violate an expectation people don't have. This is a large part of why you're not expected to cite common knowledge, dates and historical facts and such, because no one thinks you came up with them yourself no matter the context.

  2. This is very interesting! The topic of when to attribute and when not to is intriguing. For example, some common thought experiments like trolley and footbridge are so common that attribution back to Foot/Thomson seem to often be left out. But for more unusual thought experiments attribution is more common.

    Another thing that everyone does is of course to revise and reuse (sometimes verbatim) your own teaching material over time and between courses with overlapping content. If one did that (without citation/attribution) in two of ones own journal articles it would counts as self-plagiarism.

  3. Thanks for posting this.This is awesome!!


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