Definition of plagiarism in limbo, speakers argue

Published September 25, 2005

With the issue of plagiarism being pushed into the academic spotlight by the copy-paste generation and several plagiarism scandals, the University held what organizers called the largest conference on the subject to date.

About 160 speakers gathered at the Michigan Union on Friday for a three-day conference called 'Originality, Imitation and Plagiarism: A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Writing,' which was organized by the University's Sweetland Writing Center.

In a series of sessions, speakers discussed topics as diverse as plagiarism in 19th century America to fan-fiction and if it violates copyrights of the source material it derives from. Among the multidisciplinary speakers - who were lured to Ann Arbor from as far away as Belfast, Northern Ireland - opinions differed on what constitutes plagiarism.

"Plagiarism is probably one of the most unhelpful terms we've ever encountered," Rhetoric Prof. James Porter of Michigan State University said.

The University Library System defines plagiarism as using "another person's ideas and expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source is to plagiarize."

The definition is changing all the time, said Caroline Eisner, co-organizer and Sweetland associate director. Eisner attributed the definition's fluidity to the rise of the Internet and today's copy-paste mentality. She added that part of the reason the writing center decided to organize the conference a year and a half ago was because of the rise in plagiarism due to the Internet. One such plagiarism issue that resulted from the growth in technology is whether it is acceptable to use someone else's website design or PowerPoint template without attribution.

"If you want to take a strict literal definition of plagiarism, everyone with a PowerPoint presentation at this conference has been doing it," Porter said.

Students in one session answered that question by saying that whether it qualifies as plagiarism depends which class the website or PowerPoint has been created for - if the website is for a history course, it is acceptable to plagiarize because students are only graded on content, but a web-design course is a different situation.

Speakers also debated how plagiarizers and reporters who violate journalistic ethics should be punished. Dan Okrent, Former New York Times public editor and Michigan Daily alum, illustrated the discrepancy by telling the story of Mitch Albom, a Detroit Free Press sports columnist, who Okrent said fabricated part of a column last year. Unlike most journalists who commit similar crimes, Albom was not fired. Okrent suspected this was a result of Albom's status as a best-selling author and the paper's most recognizable figure.

At the University, offenders of plagiarism are treated on a case-by-case basis. Possible punishments include an "F" on the plagiarized paper, failure in the class or expulsion. Separate academic units deal with plagiarism offenders in different ways. In LSA, for example, students charged with academic misconduct have all relevant material stored in a dean's file. At the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, it can lead to a formal hearing or even the rescinding of a degree.

Most attendees and speakers agreed that awareness of plagiarism has progressed in recent years. Okrent, whose hiring at the Times was chiefly in response to reporter Jayson Blair's plagiarism scandals, said that in the past, plagiarism happened often, but it was not publicized.

The Blair scandal put the crime on the forefront. Most speakers agreed on the seriousness of the crime.

"Plagiarism brought down the most important newspaper in the English-speaking world," Okrent said, referring to the Blair scandal that occurred at the Times.

Macarena HernA