Friday, January 30, 2015

Plagiarism: An Issue of Laziness, Ignorance, or Immorality?

Plagiarism has become a national epidemic. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term in the following way:
plagiarize - /transitive verb/ - to steal or pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; use (another's production) without crediting the source.
plagiarize - /intransitive verb/ - to commit literary theft; present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
We most commonly expect to find cases of plagiarism in student academic papers, but the crisis reaches into other arenas as well. Many politicians have been accused of plagiarizing speeches, including Rand Paul and President Barack Obama. Musicians -- from Mozart to George Harrison -- have allegedly "borrowed" melodies from other sources without providing credit. The issue has even reached the pulpits of the nation's churches; the case of Marc Driscoll in Seattle immediately comes to mind. To be clear, I am not stating that any of the above referenced accusations were valid; still, the problem seems to exist in our society today.

Why is plagiarism such a problem in our nation? I think that there are several issues here that we must realize and begin to take steps to correct. First, plagiarism is often associated with simple laziness. If a person is writing a document or presenting a speech and refuses to invest the time to develop their own thoughts into an original piece of work, there is nothing else I can attribute it to than laziness. It appears that they are simply looking for the easy way to fulfill the requirements of their class or job. Sadly, the use of the Internet has made plagiarism much easier to commit -- and easier to catch.

Sometimes plagiarism might be a result of ignorance. A writer may lack the tools to produce an original work. Training in research and writing may be needed. Even if they try to create something new, the uninformed writer may begin to experience levels of frustration that leads them to look for an easier way of producing the document. While ignorance is an understandable excuse for plagiarism, it is not an acceptable excuse. The result is still unethical and criminal.

Sadly, many think that attribution alone is enough to avoid the theft of ideas and material. For example, I recently sat in an audience listening to a speaker and found myself quite bored. I noticed that the accompanying projection mentioned that the lecture was "inspired by" another author. I decided to google the topic and referenced author and found a document with the same title as the presentation which I was currently hearing. As I opened the file, I soon realized that the speaker was reading the material I was seeing online verbatim. Did this speaker really think that by simply including the author's name that it was fine to exclusively use the words of another? I'm sorry.....adding a few personal comments that account for less than 5% of your presentation is not producing new material! (As a general rule, no paper, article, speech, or sermon should include more than 30% of other people's material. People are listening to you because they want to know what you have to say on a given topic. In regards to the above referenced speaker, this is not the first incident of plagiarism that I have observed occurring.)

Let's look at the immorality of plagiarism briefly. First of all, when one plagiarizes they are knowingly stealing the material of another. Plagiarism has been discussed in classes throughout our country and addressed by major news agencies. Ignorance is not a defense. When one is caught plagiarizing, the reputation of the guilty party (whether written or orally presented) is destroyed. It effects the level of trust that we place in what they have to say. We must also question their ethics in other areas.  If the speaker is willing to act immorally in this area, what other aspects of life are they living in grey areas? Finally, plagiarism implied that the speaker is not an authority on the subject or in their discipline. If you can't come up with original material that might be supported by carefully researched supplementary material, why should I listen to you? I can seek out the same material online that you are currently presenting as your own material.

How do we stop the cycle of plagiarism? First we have to examine our own work. Unintentional plagiarism can happen to anyone. If it is a recurring problem -- if everything I write is solely based on another's thoughts -- I have to admit that there is a problem. Once we admit there is a problem that is unethical, we seek help. Community colleges, seminars, and seminaries offer classes that will train speakers and writers to develop their own ideas, research the topics, and build their own written material. In the process, we also learn appropriate citation techniques for written documents as well as public speaking. (Attention should also be given to citation for slide presentations that accompany our public speeches.) Finally, we have to accept no compromise. The issue is not whether or not we have been caught plagiarizing; it's a question of our personal morality.

What are your feelings about the nation's plagiarism crisis? I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below.

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