Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stealing is stealing

Plagiarism is an ugly word. Heck, it even looks ugly, reminiscent of the word, "plague." Like some contagious and dread disease that that bleeds, blackens, bloats, and ultimately negates the host. One would think those images would cause writers to avoid plagiarism like...the plague.

In fact, plagiarism and plague have different etymologies. Plagiarism comes from the Latin plagiarius which means "kidnapper, seducer, plunderer." While plague comes from the Latin plaga which means to "stroke, wound." Both seem appropriate to me.

A plagiarist is a thief, a plunderer of words and ideas.

Analyzing bits of information from various sources, breaking it down, combining your own experiences, synthesizing it all back together in the form of an original idea, and then communicating your new idea coherently in writing is HARD. The process requires time and brain power. You have to work for it.

A sketchy work ethic can get a young writer in trouble. Honestly, a sketchy work ethic probably gets older writers in trouble, but I'm not reading their unpubbed work, so I can't speak to how big a problem it is. I do know of one young college student who lost a $37,000 scholarship to a prestigious university because of it does get older writers in trouble.

I ran into a particularly blatant bit of plagiarism entire section of a paper lifted directly from a source that it took me all of two minutes to locate. The student did something like this...type the topic into Google, click on the first link, copy, paste, print, DONE BABY!

Terrible, right? At least, I think it is. The teacher in me thinks it's terrible because that student lost the opportunity to read and think critically. No learning happened, so the assignment was a waste of everyone's time. The experience was an educational failure for that student.

The writer in me thinks it's terrible for an entirely different reason. Somewhere out there, a writer did do some reading and some thinking and subsequently, produced one of those original ideas we were talking about. And then the plagiarist, the thief, the kidnapper, the plunderer of words STOLE it. If you think my idea is brilliant and want to share it as you work your way to your idea....great! Credit me, and we're copacetic.

Explaining to a young writer why plagiarism is wrong is getting more difficult. We live in a world where any work of art can be reduced to bits and bytes and ripped off the Internet and on to your personal computer. And while we pay lip service to stopping it, the genie is out of the bottle, and the only thing stopping illegal downloads is personal integrity. Even that becomes problematic when the downloaders see themselves as having integrity.

Our society does not respect intellectual property. We just don't. I'd like to say it's only the kids downloading music, books, and computer programs without paying for them, but it's not. Adults are just as bad. I was at a friend's house recently where an intelligent, educated guy tried to defend the practice.

Stealing is stealing. You wouldn't defend slipping a book or a CD out of Wal-Mart without paying for it, so how do you defend stealing it electronically? How do you chastise your child for plagiarizing when you haven't paid for anything on your iPod?

Maybe you don't. But I promise you this...they'll get a failing grade in English.

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