Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Inspiration or Plagiarism?

Because the courses I teach are designated as "Writing-Intensive," the Term Paper requirement is unavoidable, for both student and professor.

So, having assigned the Term Papers, I now have about a week remaining to grade them before the grade submissions deadline arrives. [Actually, it is less than a week because our great holiday of Shavuot, commemorating our receipt of G-d's Torah at Mount Sinai, will soon be upon us.]. This, therefore, will be my project for today and tomorrow (and possibly Wednesday).

The premise of Western Civilization is that we are part of a great continuum, whereby all we have is derived from those who preceded us, and, likewise, what we do will be the basis of those who will follow us. For this reason, proper scholarship dictates that the intellectual ideas and precedents we apply be acknowledged and cited. Indeed, the law review article of mine that was published a few weeks ago cites sources going back to King Hammurabi.

It is a bit of a stretch to expect law review level scholarship from undergraduate level students. Nevertheless, I do require my students to give proper citation in their Term Papers, and citational errors are viewed with greater concern than some misapplications of the spelling and grammar conventions which greatly alarmed the battleaxes who were my junior and senior high school English teachers.

Of course, I take a very strident attitude to the outright plagiarism involved in purchased term papers. These are the ones where a sentence placed in the Google search engine hits some verbatim documents. I had graded all of four Term Papers and found yet another Internet term paper vendor (whose name will not be noted in this posting, lest the site be given free advertising).

Sometimes you just know when a Term Paper is not kosher. A few years ago, I read a sentence which used the word "bulwark." The word did not strike me as one typical of the vocabulary of today's undergraduate students in America, so I googled just a 4-word fragment from the sentence and immediately found verbatim term papers on 3 different Internet sites.

Approximately one-third of my students do not speak English as their first language. It has come to the point where spelling and grammatical errors are encouraging signs because such butchering of the English language indicates that the work is the students' own. A perfectly-written Term Paper by one who was not drilled with the English spelling and grammar in the manner typical for my Baby Boomer generation in America is a waving red flag.

And, of course, I spot-check the actual citations. Some of them are ill-written, but at least I can find them. Some of the citations cite secondary and tertiary sources when they should be citing primary sources (e.g., the cited article from the New York Times discusses IRS Notice 2008-83, when the student should go to the IRS website and access Notice 2008-83 directly).

Some of the students just string together direct quotations from their sources. I can't gig them for plagiarism because they cite the sources from which the quotes were derived. It isn't very creative writing, but at least it is honest writing.

Query: Just where is that fuzzy demarcation of where inspiration ends and plagiarism begins? Does stringing together a bunch of quotes constitute a creative inspiration? Does changing a few words here and there in the quotation constitute a new work?

Along such lines, listen to the popular Neapolitan song "O Sole Mio" and compare it with Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never."

Was "O Sole Mio" inspiration for Elvis, or did Elvis plagiarize the melody?

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