Student plagiarism is now arguably the biggest dilemma facing universities.(1) That cheating of this kind should have become so rife threatens to undermine the very idea of the university as a morally responsible community of learners and to call into disrepute the awards that such institutions confer. A concerted determination to confront the issue has in recent years spawned its own mini-industry. Conferences and symposia mull over the repercussions for pedagogy posed by the plagiarism outbreak; new software products have become available to assist in the detection of it; and assessment and infringement regulations across the sector have been re-drafted and fine-tuned in order to deter and penalize it.
Richard Terry is
Professor of English
at the University of
specializes in teaching
literature and the
critical analysis of
poetry. He is currently
plagiarism in the
His most recent
‘“Plagiarism”: A Literary
Concept in England
to 1775’ in English 56 (2007).
The current malaise is unprecedented in two respects. For one thing, students have probably never plagiarized so widely, and the growth of the internet and the rise of companies dedicated to selling ‘specimen’ assignments have certainly made plagiarism seem a more viable way of gaining modular credits than was ever the case before. The buying of essays from the internet, moreover, conspires uncomfortably with an increasingly functionalist view of what universities themselves are: namely, organizations dedicated to selling certification to customers. In one sense, companies selling assignments to students are simply challenging universities’ longstanding monopoly as vendors of higher educational credits.
What also makes our current circumstances so novel is that not just do universities feel confronted by a problem that has spiralled into an epidemic, but they also feel so constrained in their ability to counteract it. In the old days, it was easy to arraign a student with having copied from a source and so having acted with an intention to cheat. Nowadays, however, the whole idea of ‘intention’ needs to be negotiated like a minefield in a culture in which students might well be inclined to contest through law a university’s ability to divine infallibly the nature of their intentions. Many institutions, including my own, have retreated from such dangerous territory and defined plagiarism as essentially a property of a text, not as an act of mental will behind the creation of that text. At the University of Sunderland, the gravity of a plagiarism offence is determined by a combination of factors: the amount of material copied, expressed as a fraction of an entire assignment; the level of the programme at which the student is studying; and whether he or she happens to be a first-time or repeat offender. The imposed penalty remains indifferent to whether the copying in question is deliberate or accidental. Not surprisingly, what has emerged as the orthodox view is that the best way to deal with plagiarism is perhaps not to confront it but to circumvent it: to design assignments that are plagiarism-proof. This avoids the problems of detection and penalization, but it represents its own form of capitulation, not so much to the students but to the intransigent nature of the problem itself.
In concert with the growth of plagiarism as a problem for pedagogy has been a different sort of mini-epidemic: the growth of plagiarism studies. Literary historians have always taken some degree of interest in issues of copying or theft among authors as well as in a few celebrated plagiarism controversies, but never previously could such a scholarly byway be thought to constitute its own academic ‘field’. The last decade, however, has seen an explosion of such studies, including Laura J. Rosenthal’s Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England (1996), Rebecca Moore Howard’s Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators (1999), Shelley Angélil-Carter’s Stolen Language? Plagiarism in Writing (2000), Marilyn Randall’s Pragmatic Plagiarism (2001), as well as a collection of essays edited by Paulina Kewes on Plagiarism in Early Modern England (2003). There seems little prospect of any immediate let-up in the flood of such works, with two further ones, Tilar J. Mazzeo’s Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period and Robert Macfarlane’s Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature, already having appeared in 2007. My credentials for writing this current essay rest on the several years I have spent trying to write my own study of literary plagiarism between Dryden and Sterne.(2)
What seems to unite most of these books, and to differentiate them from older studies of the same topic, is a concern to investigate not just the incidence of plagiarism but also its very nature as a concept. What precisely is plagiarism that we should nowadays be so horrified by it? Where did it come from and did former ages necessarily have quite the same scruples about the matter as we do now? It is, of course, convenient for modern universities to represent their injunctions against plagiarism as upholding a moral absolute, but to what extent is this really the case? Might our condemnation of plagiarism be considered instead as less a matter of pure ethics than of narrow professional etiquette? Plagiarism studies, then, is a field that explores the provenance of plagiarism as a concept, the fluidities concerning what at various times it has been understood to consist of, and the moral reception of plagiarism at different historical moments. Such books also have the added effect of convincing that textual copying, whether condemned or condoned, is scarcely a new phenomenon. Student plagiarists, however much we might be dismayed by their practices, are in good historical company.
The first recorded use of the word ‘plagiarism’ is by the Roman poet Martial when complaining, as he often had cause to do, about a rival poet reading out his verses and passing them off as his own.(3) It is actually a figurative coinage, since plagiarism referred in literal terms to the act of stealing slaves or even abducting children. Even from the outset ‘plagiarism’ as a term means something bad, to be reprehended. While it’s not true to say that verbal copying has always and everywhere been deplored, the application of the word ‘plagiarism’ to any act of copying seems never not to have had the effect of stigmatizing it. Martial’s indignation about being plagiarized, however, while it might seem to suggest his possession of the same moral standards as ourselves, is not entirely as it seems. What riles him is not in fact the spectacle of another writer claiming authorship of his own poems, for he could have endured that without the least pang if only he had been paid for the works in question. It is the loss of remuneration that infuriates him. He is happy enough in principle to conspire in a fraud over the actual ownership of the poems.
When the idea of ‘plagiarism’ migrates to England in the mid-seventeenth century, it preserves the same suppositions behind Martial’s usage of the term. One of these is that plagiarism has to do not with how a work is composed but how it is put before an audience: it means stealing someone else’s work while stating it to be your own. As a corollary of this, it also means stealing a work in its entirety as distinct from lifting discrete passages or ideas, as we now tend to view the offence. When seventeenth-century writers express their sense of grievance at being plagiarized, they routinely stigmatize the plagiarist as a thief, thus reflecting a notion that plagiarists actually assume possession of the works that they target.
Martial’s concept of plagiarism should not be mistaken for the one we possess nowadays: for us plagiarism involves not so much theft, in any meaningful sense, as deception. Moreover, plagiarists do not as a rule try to lay claim to entire books actually composed by other authors but to components of them: to ideas, passages or expressions. This modern understanding of plagiarism seems to me to be a product of the mid-eighteenth century and involves a fresh understanding of the psychology behind plagiarism. Plagiarism had tended previously to be characterized as a bold, audacious act but from this point it becomes viewed instead as something furtive and secretive. From this point, too, dates the idea that textual referencing provides a sort of antidote to potential plagiarism. Writers of an allusive nature, who want to ward off any possible imputation of plagiarism, start to add footnotes to their works identifying the source of any borrowings.(4)
The current OED definition of plagiarism as ‘the wrongful appropriation... and publication as one’s own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas... of another’ bears close similarities to one originally penned in 1775.(5) By this point, the modern concept of plagiarism has crystallized. Plagiarism committed by today’s students does not fall under the rubric of theft, as it did originally, but of deception. The victim the offence creates tends not to be seen as the author whose words have been cribbed but instead the lecturer who gets duped by the plagiarism, or perhaps the other students in the cohort who play by the rules. For us plagiarism is not so much about borrowing material but about not declaring you have done so. This indeed points to a limitation of some current software products designed to identify student plagiarism by calculating the proportion of an assignment that has been appropriated.(6) The problem is that the issue of plagiarism is not primarily one of appropriation but of disclosure, or the absence of it.
This essay is an attempt to bring two things into each other’s orbit. Nearly all academics in English departments will at some point find themselves faced with the issue of student plagiarism, but how many are aware of the existence of a field of literary study expressly dedicated to the understanding of plagiarism as an historical phenomenon? How perhaps can our present malaise be usefully informed by the past? Studying plagiarism in earlier periods certainly convinces that standards were not inevitably higher in the past, but also reassures that scope for condemning plagiarists has always existed. Even in Martial’s day, thieving poets risked being publicly exposed. Yet what has not remained constant is exactly what constitutes the offence, the amount of appropriation necessary to count as plagiarism, and the relation between it and related, though innocent, literary practices such as imitation and allusion. My own research has also cautioned me in particular to distrust the allegers of plagiarism. In earlier times, as in our own, the allegation is one not infrequently tainted by an impurity of motive, either of commercial advantage or professional rivalry.
The plagiarism issue in a university context, however, remains crucially different from plagiarism as a general phenomenon. Though often confused with the legal offence of breach of copyright, plagiarism has never been subject to juridical regulation. It remains a matter of professional integrity and individual ethics. Student plagiarism, on the other hand, is proscribed by the regulations of (one imagines) all universities, regulations by which students become bound once they enter an institution. Moreover students, even though they may not always appreciate it, are as much beneficiaries as victims of this regime, in so far as universities’ outlawing of plagiarism helps preserve a level playing field from which the student body in general stands to benefit. Ultimately, whether the example of history recommends lenience or severity in dealing with current-day plagiarism is perhaps not the point. It is an offence, and accordingly subject to penalty, because universities have the rightful prerogative to declare it to be one.(7)
1. See a 2006 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) survey revealing that one in six students admitted to copying from friends and one in ten to searching for essays on the net. See Jessica Shepherd, THES, 17 March 2006, p. 1.
2. For another essay bringing together student and literary plagiarism (with special reference to Coleridge and De Quincey), see Daniel Sanjiv Roberts ‘Literature, Lit. Crit. or Plagiarism? Spot the Difference’, English Subject Centre Newsletter 10 (June 2006).
4. This is true of both Thomas Gray and Charlotte Smith. See Gray’s letter of 27 August 1756, in the Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, with corrections and additions by H.W. Starr, three vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 2: 477: ‘do not wonder . . . if some Magazine or Review call me Plagiary’.
6. The JISC service (www.jiscpas.ac.uk) operating Turnitin UK electronic plagiarism detection involves running essays through a search engine to produce an originality quotient.