This week’s blog report is about the delicate and complicated subject of Plagiarism (I knew we had to go there at some point!), and we have some ideas that would make us think twice about what we consider plagiarism. Kenneth Goldsmith definitely has his ideas contrasting what we’ve learnt about the topic, but the main idea of this week’s reading is that plagiarism is best avoided, for our career and credibility’s sake. Now, the issue here is not that we need to come up with 100% original content all the time, but rather that we need to know how to properly give credit to others when we use their ideas to support our conclusions. Sands raises a really good question: how do we deal with it if accused? The answer: it depends. But definitely, we’ve heard that our credibility as authors could be severely hurt if we’re proven to have plagiarized someone’s work, so what do we do to avoid being accused in first place? Read on!

Plagiarism: Maybe It’s Not So… Bad?

Before we all go and crucify Kenneth Goldsmith (and if you look at the comments section you’ll find that many listeners of the show totally did), I would like to say what he is saying is actually not THAT crazy, at least in part. If we look at some history sources which I’m not going to bother to properly cite (in the spirit of this week’s topic), we will find that composers would heavily borrow from each other and from themselves in the common practice musical canon (Diabelli variations anyone?). What he seemed to be OK with was just taking these ideas, and string them together as our own, giving merit not to our creativity, but to our ability to make new stuff with previously-created stuff, and this is the very thing that academics fight against in the War on Plagiarism®.

(I hereby claim the “War on Plagiarism” term as my own, super-creative spin on the “War on Terror”)

So the question I ask myself is, at which point in history did borrowing an idea to put in another context become such a bad thing? I am not sure, but what I know is that whenever serious borrowing has happened, we know what the source material is and where it came from — the Diabelli variations where based on a theme by a guy named Diabelli. Another example are all the “Variations on a theme by Paganini,” (Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski) or all the pieces written based on the Dies Irae (Liszt, Saint-Säens, et. al.). Composers seem to keep doing it and that’s A-OK, as long as I know what the source is (btw check out The Beethoven Machine by Michael Colgrass — great piece IMHO). Now, as a composer I DEFINITELY value credit, and if somebody uses my work I will definitely expect to be named, and in turn I put good energy into the Universe by doing the same whenever I write a serious academic paper or use work extraneous to my own as inspiration. Do not get me wrong on that one (I read that composers borrowed from each other and themselves in Barbara R. Hanning’s textbook Concise History of Western Music, by the way).

In the context of academic work, where Goldsmith failed to “nail it” is that we repurpose information for the sake of supporting our own ideas (or at least conclusions we got to on our own, ideally). We don’t “string together ideas to create a paper,” or “point to sources” just for the sake of pointing, like news aggregators do. We point because we want to say “Hey! This is my idea, and these are the solid, academic reasons that prove my idea right!” Goldsmith’s success seemed to stem from the fact that he came forth and said “I am not writing anything new, but here’s how I repurpose some of the stuff already created,” and maybe that’s why his concepts are so dissonant in a world that values originality.

Off topic: Something that caught my attention was when Goldsmith mentioned that visual art went abstract because 150 years ago it met the camera. Made me ask myself, could it be that something similar happened to art music? Well, he did mention that sampler and magnetic tape made music go in a different direction, and that totally applies to pop music, and to some extent, art music. Something I was discussing with a fellow grad student the other day is that some composers write “for the computer,” and maybe notation software and technology is what is shaping the future of art music. Idk. Hopefully I am alive by the time historians do put something together that explains the music of these decades.

How-to guides of the week: “Citing Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism,” and “IC Library Plagiarism Tutorial” — Real world examples.

After a long introduction on the purpose of citing and the avoidance of plagiarism, a talk which many of us grads and undergrads have gone through already, the bottomline purpose of Sampsel’s text is to give us some examples of what do poorly cited (plagiarized) and properly cited ideas look like. Also, there is a link in the IC library plagiarism tutorial with a great short guide about avoiding plagiarism.

Sampsel does let us into the fact that plagiarism could be a complicated thing to prove. Teachers sometimes use Turnitin, sometimes rely on their knowledge of the field and its prominent authors, and sometimes it is just plain obvious that “this guy/girl did not write this.” It could also be hard for us, as students, to really be aware of when we are plagiarizing or not. It certainly was for me, as a student from another culture coming into the academic world in the US, to know the difference: things were just done differently in the Dominican Republic, although the academic panorama has been changing for the better over there (it should have in almost 10 years, anyway).

The key takeaway from these readings is: know that the right thing to do when writing (not only academic papers) is to give credit where credit is due. The IC library does remind us that not everything requires citation, but to be mindful about when it is appropriate not to cite stuff. If we’re doing research, and have found a cool way of supporting your idea(s), use it! However, we better MAKE SURE that author’s name makes it to the paper, make sure the text does not sound like the idea is our own, and make sure to cite the source correctly according to one of the style guides out there: after all they are there to help us avoid being charged with intellectual property theft.

“It’s complicated: plagiarism in our culture” — Yeah, indeed it is, but there is a way of avoiding it.

How to avoid plagiarism.

How to avoid plagiarism.

After citing some career-breaking instances in which plagiarism was proved, Sands mentions that it is true that plagiarism can be accidental and an honest mistake, but regretfully the consequences we face from it are real and may some times be severe. But geez… the similarities between the Harvard Sophomore case and the original book were too striking to be an accidental, honest mistake, and it didn’t even seem like Viswanathan was putting the same words in another context, at least according to the Harvard Crimson’s report on the case (Click here to see the FIRST version of the report, which lists many of the similarities).

Sands gives us an interesting tip: if we question the originality of our work, it is a good sign. I will rephrase that idea and say: if we are constantly asking ourselves if our work is original, it is a sign that we’re thinking about not plagiarizing someone’s work, and that is good. She notes that her students who worry about it almost never plagiarize, and the ones who are careless do it often. No surprise: people who worry about making typos make less mistakes than people who don’t care about it (side note: the “your” and “you’re” thing drives me nuts).

So please, let us question our own originality, and think about it. Depending on the degree of success the work containing plagiarism, an author will face varying consequences, like the Harvard student who lost a $500k contract (ouch!), or George Harrison, or even Melania Trump’s plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech, the consequences to an accusation could be devastating — the Internet had a field day with Melania Trump! So the key takeaway for this reading is that yes, plagiarism is a messy subject, but a good way for us to avoid it would be to always keep it in mind and taking necessary steps (“when in doubt, cite!” as the IC Library Guide reads) to ensure our credibility is kept intact.