Speech 9: Argumentation
Copyright © 1996 B. A. Collie Collier
A "timed" assignment -- we only had 20 minutes to write something on the subject of plagiarism, to demonstrate our understanding of a reading on the subject. Jensen's Model of Argumentation was the format we were shown in our books as the template to follow, re a well-written, 'good' argument. The only reason this paper stands out to me is because according to the professor, apparently no other student in all the classes she'd taught had thought to use Jensen's model to argue against plagiarism... which I must confess seemed self-evident to me. :-)
Using Jensen's Model of Argumentation, I will address the problem of plagiarism. I will look at it from the substantive dimension (is the problem one of commission or omission), the qualitative dimension (what values does plagiarism violate, and if so how serious is the problem), and ascertain who the true victims and villains are. Finally I will offer a modest proposal as to how to deal with this problem, both from the viewpoint of the recipient of plagiarized information, and from the viewpoint of the person seeking to avoid plagiarism in their own writing.
First of all, what is plagiarism? I shall paraphrase Dorothy Seyler's definition for this paper. Plagiarism: using someone else's ideas or words, and either actively crediting them to yourself, or passively not crediting properly.
Is plagiarism a problem of commission or omission? The proper answer is both. The professor who is handed an obviously plagiarized paper must act to prevent a repeat of this occurrence -- an act of commission. The student facing a deadline must avoid the temptation to use someone else's thoughts -- an act of omission.
What values are violated? Is this a serious problem? Plagiarism is, to phrase it bluntly, theft. If I have put time and effort into a presentation, paper, or idea, to have someone else use my ideas and not credit me is to deny the validity of my labor. They become no longer mine, and someone else gains, to my loss. This can be a fairly covert, passive thing, as in someone unwittingly being so impressed with my ideas that they use them in a paraphrased format to bolster an argument of their own. Or it can be deliberate -- my writings could be copied verbatim, with the offending person signing their name to it and presenting it as their own. Either way, I lose. If you ask me, the person whose ideas have been stolen, if this is a serious problem and should something be done about it, I will probably answer with an annoyed and resounding yes!
Who are the true villains? Who are the true victims? These are interesting questions which at first glance may seem blindingly evident. The villains may seem pretty obvious, initially. Someone who plagiarizes is in the wrong, regardless of whether the plagiarism was deliberate or not. However, is the professor who knowingly lets the plagiarism pass also a "villain"? I'd have to answer yes, since that professor has signaled consent to plagiarism by their silence.
This brings up the next question: who are the true victims? Again, this question seems quite transparent initially. The victim is the person whose ideas are stolen. Yet once again, there is another potential victim. The person who has stolen that idea has certainly gained in the short term. But let us consider the long term. By plagiarizing, that person has allowed themselves the first steps in mental laziness, and allowed someone else to do their thinking for them. In the long term, that refusal to think for themselves, to stretch their own mental capacities, will quite possibly come back to haunt them. They hurt themselves by such actions.
How should this problem be dealt with? This is a somewhat difficult question, since there's more than one kind of plagiarism. Furthermore, people are not insects; one answer may not adequately deal with all the possible ramifications. Bearing this in mind, I would suggest a professor (or listener) ascertain as closely as possible if this was a case of active or passive plagiarism. Passive plagiarism has a good chance of being accidental and unwitting, and I'd suggest giving such people both a gentle warning of what they've done, and some helpful education as to what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Should it continue, I would see it as a sign of a more serious problem -- as possibly needing to be reconsidered as active plagiarism.
Active plagiarism is a deliberate act of theft. I believe it should be dealt with accordingly, and the guilty person penalized for their actions with some appropriate punishment. Receiving a failing grade is one example.
How should one avoid misrepresenting borrowed information and ideas? It's actually rather easy. Credit people for their ideas and words. Once you've done that, you're quoting, or attributing a concept to someone. Most people love to be considered inspiring. Alternatively, be careful when you're taking notes. Sloppy note-taking can be a form of plagiarism, and is easily avoided. Finally, err on the side of conservatism. If you're not sure whether you're plagiarizing or not, assume you are, and adjust your writing accordingly.
Last Updated: Tue, March 28, 2000