Saturday 9 February 2013

On plagiarism

A specter is going round in German ministries of education. The specter of plagiarism. A second minister has been pushed into the political wilderness today after it was 'discovered' that she had plagiarised parts of her doctoral dissertation submitted more than 30 years ago.

I am in two minds about it. On the one hand I am outraged as anybody else that somebody (the minister for education of all persons!) managed to pass off the work of others as her own. However, looking more deeply at the issue, the 'Schavan' affair is by no means clear-cut. It seems that she may not have lifted whole sections from other people's publications and placed them in her own dissertation without acknowledging the source, but had in fact re-phrased other people's writings and failed to give appropriate citations.

Thinking about my own practice over the last 20 years, I can safely say that I enjoy writing my own words far too much to simply copy and paste. Writing is an almost cathartic experience, something that requires thinking about what to say as much as how to say it. It's the phrasing and discarding of thoughts and the subsequent formulating that is both fun and challenge. Adopting the words of others diminishes this labour of love and that's why I fail to understand the motive for plagiarism. Lifting words from others into your own work simply takes away the joy of writing that comes with having achieved something.

However, there is another dimension to the issue. My first supervisor, Wolfgang Hardtwig, at the Humboldt University always said: 'Reading saves you from discovering new things'. This has special relevance in the field of doctoral studies where students are asked to contribute something novel to the body of knowledge. The less you read other people's work, the more you feel that you have discovered something utterly new. The fact is that work in the humanities is as much about re-interpreting as it is about saying something genuinely new. And the more you familiarise yourself with the work of others, the more you discover that pretty much everything has been said at least once by somebody who came before you.

Simply too early to have been plagiarised?

What does this have to do with plagiarism? Well, students are at the very outset of their academic life and it is a fact of life, that you simply have not read as much as a 22 year old as you did when you reached my age. Hence the fascination with claiming 'discoveries' left right and centre as you engage with academic work and get to grips with the huge body of knowledge out there.

I remember one particularly experience which gave me food for thought. in 1993 I spent weeks of reading and writing for a lengthy essay on Augustine's City of God for a seminar at the Free University Berlin. I loved the work, delving into the primary sources as well as secondary writings by Ratzinger (yes, the current Pope Benedict published extensively on religious thought, no surprise there). After submitting my essay, a densely typed manuscript of about 20 pages with plenty of footnotes, I was simply proud of my work (though I somehow struggle today to recall the main argument of this undoubtedly groundbreaking work!). My examiner duly rewarded me with a 'first', the highest mark you could get, but then proceeded to cast some doubt on the provenance of the argument. After praising the essay, he said: 'I think I have read this before somewhere.'

I was devastated. The suspicion hit me like a train. After weeks of laborious effort, all I had come up with was something that had already been written somewhere. And, despite all my reading, I had somehow missed this too!

You may say he simply wanted to tease out whether or not I had plagiarised the essay, which I clearly had not (the strenuous and over-complicated grammar in my essay should have been a give-away). Yet, the incident casts a light on the difficulties of writing genuinely 'new' things. Humanities are to a large extent an interpretive science, i.e. a re-arranging of the deck-chairs. And perhaps plagiarism, while a despicable practice, is just the price we pay for having said so much already.

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