Father's Day postscript to plagiarism debate

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 18, 2003

A pair of columns I ran a month ago on plagiarism generated responses that take me back to dinnertime discussions I used to have with our two sons during their grade- and high-school days.

Before I return to that table, however, I'd like to acknowledge my debt to one of our other coffee companions for piquing my interest in plagiarism.

Don Cochrane is head of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan and a prominent author on values education. Don is a real sleuth when it comes to theft of intellectual property, both in academia and in government.

Last year Don and I were intrigued by an article by Emily Eakin in The New York Times: "Stop, Historians! Don't Copy That Passage! Computers Are Watching" (Jan. 26, 2002).

In view of what's been happening at The Times just recently, I'm wondering whether Don would agree that Eakin should take a stab at another article – something like: "Stop, Journalists! Don't Copy That Passage! The Whole World's Watching."

Indeed, the whole world has been watching The Times since their May 1 termination of reporter Jayson Blair for plagiarism and related misdeeds. The scandal ultimately cost the paper's executive and managing editors their jobs and left the world's newspaper-of-record with egg on its face – and this is no yolk!

Now to the responses from my sons. Long grown up and onto interesting lives of their own, they nevertheless made the plagiarism issue into an opportunity for a great virtual debate. Here are just a few snippets from their e-mails:

Older son Reg, a mainframes computer professional, began by suggesting, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that "plagiarism is the natural order," and that any rules to the contrary are more about protecting profits than ideas.

"The problem is this," Reg wrote: "we build on what has been, in order to advance society; as Newton said, 'If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' But once someone takes ownership of intellectual property and then denies use of it to others" – unless royalty demands are met – "the only benefit is to the monopolist."

This can degenerate into "protection gone mad," Reg argued, and as examples we need look no further than "the farmer sued by a biotechnology company because their seeds were found growing on the edge of his property," or "the lady who copyrighted the name of a local sea monster which had been in common use for over a century, and is now suing everyone who uses it," or "organizations potentially taking out patents on individual human genomes."

Younger son James, a Toronto editor and writer, agreed with Reg to a point: "the natural action with ideas is to assimilate them" and people's natural tendency is to copy.

"The mental landscape is of course built of things acquired elsewhere, and new ideas borrow on these," James wrote. "Everything gets reused. Shakespeare got his ideas from stories he'd read elsewhere," but he and others like him "didn't simply take the words whole cloth. They took the stories and presented them in a new light. . .

"Even borrowing pieces intact is not universally scorned. Music and architecture quote all the time, and it's often considered a sort of exercise to figure out what they're quoting from.

"But none of this is really the pragmatic of plagiarism as we know it in general or of Jayson Blair in specific," he said.

"The problem with plagiarism per se is its pragmatic inappropriateness." Borrowing ideas and phrases as inspiration is one thing. But "if I swipe large amounts of text rather that write it myself . . . it's like hiring someone to go to the gym for you and work out.

"If I present other people's work as my own in order to gain compensation of any kind – money, awards, recognition, and, yes, grades – I am presenting myself as having skills I do not have, and as having done work I have not done, and I am taking compensation that should be due another person."

And so the debate continues. But as a Father's Day postscript, gee, it was nice to be reminded of the great dinner discussions we had when the boys were kids.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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