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Positive plagiarism and the fuzziness of originality

  • Setiono Sugiharto

Jakarta | Sat, September 17 2011 | 07:00 am

Consider the following two situations which are commonplace in academia. A senior professor who has a wealth of experience in writing a number of books and in publishing his research in scholarly journals is caught red-handed intentionally copying the words of others verbatim without attributing the original sources. Also, a university student (a novice writer) quotes the words of other scholars or writers in his term paper and does not make a clear or proper acknowledgment of his sources due to his limited knowledge of academic conventions.

The immediate reaction from academia is to judge both the professor and the student guilty of committing a serious academic fraud, known in the language of the academy as plagiarism. In other words, they are both plagiarists.

Following this reaction are the absolute consequences that the professor and the student must suffer. Academia imposes academic penalties which may range from receiving a “D” grade, to the suspension of academic promotion or even expulsion from the university.

One may wonder as to whether the penalty imposed on the professorial plagiarist should also apply to the student plagiarist. While the academic penalty for a plagiarist (students and professors) is in many cases necessary to prevent copying without attribution and in turn to uphold academic integrity, the decision made in determining the penalty should be based on completely different considerations.

For a professorial plagiarist, the imposition of juridical policy is the best way to curb plagiarism among senior academic members including those of professorial rank. In this policy, plagiarism is viewed as analogous to a criminal act. It is a form of academic dishonesty and a serious infringement of academic ethics and morality, the “academic death penalty” (to borrow the phrase of writing specialist R.M Howard) for which is expulsion from the university, rather than suspension of academic promotion. Thus, this is a moral consideration.

Non-juridical or pedagogical policy on the other hand should be enforced specifically for student (novice writer) plagiarists. Unlike juridical policy, pedagogical policy sees plagiarism as an inevitable process of students’ learning to write, and hence is what R.M. Howard calls “positive plagiarism”.

Needless to say, writing from sources is part of academic writing where students are required not only to write what they believe, but also to support their assertions by quoting other scholars’ arguments.

As academic writing requires a highly specialized skill, it often poses problems for novice writers who are often not familiar with academic convention. This unfamiliarity leads the student writer to produce “patchwriting” – the close, but not exact copying of other sources with the styles of grammar and vocabulary in the target writing slightly altered. Though not precise copying, this writing is still considered plagiarism, to be precise “positive plagiarism”.

Yet, according to Howard, positive plagiarism differs in many respects from the commonly perceived notion of plagiarism. Positive plagiarism is not always related to moral considerations or ethics; it is not a criminal act committed by immoral students; it is not always a form of academic dishonesty.

Rather, it is a form of learning strategy employed by inexperienced student writers who are not yet acquainted with, or are unaware of, academic writing conventions. In essence, positive plagiarism is a “transitional strategy” and a “pedagogical opportunity” used by students to prepare themselves to become members of an academic-discourse community.

It is clear that unlike novice writers (outsiders), plagiarists of professorial rank, as members of academic-discourse communities who also play a role in establishing academic conventions, must be severely penalized under the consideration of juridical policy. Juridical policy proscribes the criminal act of stealing others’ intellectual property and condemns any unethical conduct and academic dishonesty in academia.

The notion of positive plagiarism however should not be restricted only to patchwriting in student writing. In fact, in the works of professional writers and scholars positive plagiarism is not uncommon.

In his book Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and its Sources, linguist Keith Miller shows how even King, a renowned writer and orator, for cultural reasons borrowed extensively from various texts and patched these texts together without attributing their sources when he wrote his famous speech I Have a Dream.

There is good reason why positive plagiarism in the sense of merging voices of different authors should be encouraged among both junior and senior members of the academic community. Critical insights often emerge when a writer takes others’ words, synthesizes, rewords, evaluates and finally reshapes them in accordance with his or her ideology, rhetorical traditions, interests and purposes.

It is also through merging different voices that writers can find space to critically explore their textual strategies in order to construct their own unique voices.

Construed in the sense of voice-merging, positive plagiarism obscures the notion of originality, literacy property as well as plagiarism itself. In other words, there is no such thing as originality, literacy property, and plagiarism.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University. He is also chief-editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching

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