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Apr 05 2006

On writing-2: Why do we cite other people’s work?

In the previous post on this topic, I discussed the plagiarism case of Ben Domenech, who had lifted entire chunks of other people’s writings and had passed them off as his own.

How could he have done such a thing? After all, all high school and college students get the standard lecture on plagiarism and why it is bad. And even though Domenech was home schooled, it seems unlikely that he thought this was acceptable practice. When he was confronted with his plagiarism, his defense was not one of surprise that it was considered wrong but merely that he had been ‘young’ when he did it or that he had got permission from the author to use their words or that the offending words had been inserted by his editors.

The cautionary lectures that students receive about plagiarism are usually cast in a moralistic way, that plagiarism is a form of stealing, that taking someone else’s words or ideas without proper attribution is as morally reprehensible as taking their money.

What is often overlooked in this kind of approach is that there are many other reasons why writers and academics cite other people’s works when appropriate. By focusing too much on this stealing aspect, we tend to not give students an important insight into how scholarship and research works.

Russ Hunt at St. Thomas University argues that writers cite others for a whole complex of reasons that have little to do with avoiding charges of plagiarism:

[P]ublished scholarly literature is full of examples of writers using the texts, words and ideas of others to serve their own immediate purposes. Here’s an example of the way two researchers opened their discussion of the context of their work in 1984:

To say that listeners attempt to construct points is not, however, to make clear just what sort of thing a ‘point’ actually is. Despite recent interest in the pragmatics of oral stories (Polanyi 1979, 1982; Robinson 1981), conversations (Schank et al. 1982), and narrative discourse generally (Prince 1983), definitions of point are hard to come by. Those that do exist are usually couched in negative terms: apparently it is easier to indicate what a point is not than to be clear about what it is. Perhaps the most memorable (negative) definition of point was that of Labov (1972: 366), who observed that a narrative without one is met with the “withering” rejoinder, “So what?” (Vipond & Hunt, 1984)

It is clear here that the motives of the writers do not include prevention of charges of plagiarism; moreover, it’s equally clear that they are not. . .attempting to “cite every piece of information that is not a) the result of your own research, or b) common knowledge.” What they are doing is more complex. The bouquet of citations offered in this paragraph is informing the reader that the writers know, and are comfortable with, the literature their article is addressing; they are moving to place their argument in an already existing written conversation about the pragmatics of stories; they are advertising to the readers of their article, likely to be interested in psychology or literature, that there is an area of inquiry — the sociology of discourse — that is relevant to studies in the psychology of literature; and they are establishing a tone of comfortable authority in that conversation by the acknowledgement of Labov’s contribution and by using his language –”withering” is picked out of Labov’s article because it is often cited as conveying the power of pointlessness to humiliate (I believe I speak with some authority for the authors’ motives, since I was one of them).

Scholars — writers generally — use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their alliances, they bring work to the attention of their reader, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against potential allegations of plagiarism.

The clearest difference between the way undergraduate students, writing essays, cite and quote and the way scholars do it in public is this: typically, the scholars are achieving something positive; the students are avoiding something negative. (my italics)

I think that Hunt has hit exactly the right note.

When you cite the works of others, you are strengthening your own argument because you are making them (and their allies) into your allies, and people who challenge what you say have to take on this entire army. When you cite reputable sources or credible authorities for facts or ideas, you become more credible because you are no longer alone and thus not easily dismissed, even if you personally are not famous or a recognized authority.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: It’s now Daylight Saving Time. Do you know where your spiritual plane is?

It seems like idiotic statements attributing natural events to supernatural causes are not restricted to Christian radical clerics like Pat Robertson. Some Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy are challenging him for the title of Religious Doofus.

Since Sri Lanka sits very close to the equator, the length of the day is the same all year round, not requiring the ‘spring-forward-fall-back’ biannual adjusting of the US. Sri Lankan time used to be 5.5 hours ahead of Universal Time (UT) but in 1996 the government made a one-time shift it to 6.5 hours in order to have sunset arrive later and save energy. But the influential Buddhist clergy were not happy with the change. As a compromise, the clocks were then again adjusted to make it just 6.0 ahead of UT as a compromise. Now the government is thinking of going back to the original 5.5. hours.

Some of the country’s Buddhist clergy are rejoicing at the prospect of a change because they say Sri Lanka’s “old” time fitted better with their rituals.

They believe a decade living in the “wrong” time has upset the country’s natural order with terrible effect.

The Venerable Gnanawimala says the change moved the country to a spiritual plane 500 miles east of where it should be.

“After this change I feel that many troubles have been caused to Sri Lanka. Tsunamis and other natural disasters have been taking place,” he says.

This is what happens when you mix religion and the state. You now have to worry about what your actions are doing to the longitudinal coordinates of your nation’s spiritual plane.

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