Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, who is the person who maintains and is responsible for the FtB network, gives the sad news that a fellow FtB blogger over at A Million Gods has been removed from the network because of serial plagiarism. The charge is that he lifted entire chunks from the writings of others without attribution.
As a teacher and a long time member of academia, I am familiar with the problem of plagiarism, since it is considered a major violation of ethics. For students, the most common reason for committing this act is that they frequently underestimate how long it takes to write something and think they can dash it off the night before the due date and then, confronted with the impossible task of completing something original on time, simply cut and paste from their sources. The problem is further compounded by the fact that some think that attributing too much to other sources somehow devalues their own contribution and will thus result in a lower grade.
I try to take preventive measures to help them avoid these traps. First I tell them that almost all of academic writing consists of small incremental increases in knowledge, and very little is of blinding originality. This is true for even scholarly papers and thus applies doubly to term papers written by students for courses. So I tell them that I don’t expect highly original work but I do expect them to put their own interpretation on the subject.
Secondly, I do not have hard and fast deadlines. I tell them that they can take extra time if they wish and I give them opportunities to rewrite based on my own feedback and the feedback of their peers. This stretches out the writing process and prevents the absurd practice of pulling an all-nighter. Rewriting is an essential part of writing and thinking that you can get it right the first time is one of the biggest misconceptions students have.
Finally, I tell them that citing and quoting others does not detract from their work but actually adds to it because they are harnessing other writers as allies in their cause.
The point of these guidelines is to help them become better writers. The beneficial side effect is that it eliminates the conditions that so often drive people to plagiarize.
In the case of blogging though, none of those conditions really apply which makes Avicenna’s plagiarism so puzzling. We write when we want to about things we care about. There is no time pressure. We are not graded on our writing, though we do get comments. So why plagiarize? Laziness? Ignorance of proper attribution methods? A desire to be seen as a more original writer than one actually is?
Occasionally errors can creep in. As regular readers know, I often use blockquotes when citing others but html is unforgiving of errors and if you make any mistake in the blockquote formatting, it does not do it and the quoted text appears as if it is a continuation of your own words. I catch this when I preview the post before publishing. In addition, I link to the source and mention the name of the writer so that the fact that I am quoting is fairly obvious. It does not take that long to do these things so not doing it implies that one is really sloppy or incredibly lazy or just does not care.
Whatever the reason, it is always a bad thing to plagiarize and one would have hoped that the recent repeated occasions of major writers being exposed would result in people being more careful.