Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Art of Plagiarism.

In 2005, cases of plagiarism in UK University courses were around 8,000. These increased in 2009-2010 to 17,000. There wasn't much of a change in subsequent years: figures from 2009-2012 showed that 45,000 cases of plagiarism (the main example of misconduct) had occurred. The most up-to-date investigation by The Times newspaper claims an "epidemic" is present with 50,000 cases from from 2013-2016. In fact, that figure is more-or-less consistent with the previous figures of 17,000 per year. There is a significant change, however, according to university sources with a major shift from Type 1 plagiarism (copying work) to Type 2 plagiarism (buying essays and theses over the internet). These figures are deeply concerning, showing the extent to which academic enquiry is being devalued. 

Originality seems to be less important than merely answering a question and getting a good grade. Perhaps, I ought to be shocked at these figures and the trends they show, but I am not. It is the curse of education. Courses for training continuously plagiarise: a course isn't about original thought, it's about the re-cycling of someone else's ideas and stitching together as much second-hand material together as possible. Only this week, a colleague of mine attended a course on "growth mind-sets" in the classroom. The advisor leading the training day cribbed all her illustrations from YouTube, Google Images and psychological research more than a decade old. 

The word "plagiarism" has an interesting history, one that I didn't know much about until I started thinking through this post. The word comes comes from the Latin "to kidnap" and in some contexts "to enslave/chain". It is the forceful taking of someone else's ideas and enslaving them to your own purposes. A few years ago, I remember editing a Nigerian poetry manuscript. One poem ended beautifully with "I sang in my chains like the sea." Clearly, the line had not been recognised by other African writers who had read the poem. To an English or Welsh reader, it is immediately recognisable as the last line in Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill". Ironically, the "poet" had plagiarised a perfect image of plagiarism (and thought he could get away with it). Every poet is bound to the flux of the mind just as the sea is linked to the pull of the moon and the poet sings against the chains of creativity and what had been written before.

One of my favourite poems in Jee Leong Koh's Steep Tea, is the key-note poem "Attributions". The poem reflects the whole of the volume which takes its roots in other poems, but never plagiarises the originals. "Attributions" raises a question that clearly fascinates Jee Leong Koh: where do words come from and how do we know what it ours (especially in a country where Colonialism and State censorship dictated what you knew as you struggled for individualism)? Is all writing a struggle against plagiarism--the chains that bind us--and a fight to attribute what is ours and what belongs to others. As he puts is, so finely:

Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.
(ST, p.36).

In 2013, a major scandal hit the poetry world, in the UK, when poet Christian Ward won the Bourne Poetry Prize with a poem copied from Helen Mort. He attempted to talk his way out of an embarrassing situation by saying, like other poets, he had built his poem out of the skeleton of Mort's poem and never meant to plagiarise it. Apparently, he had submitted a draft (to the competition) that wasn't entirely his work, something of an understatement since only a few words in the winning poem were his own! The controversy generated a discussion on the Write Out Loud blog about what was permissible when using other works as sources. 

When it comes to plagiarism and poetry, there does seem to be a fair degree of hypocrisy. Ward is clearly a fake, yet Hart Crane's copying of an early published poem from the work of Samuel Greenberg is taken as a tribute! The copy of Crane's poem below shows exactly how much was copied from Greenberg (including part of the title). In what sense is this a tribute? Each colour indicates a different Greenberg poem, so Crane's version of Greenberg isn't a lazy attempt at copying, like Ward's, but a deliberate attempt to build a poem out of seven separate poems-- a hiding of sources by burying a poem in copied allusions. 

Emblems of Conduct (1926).

By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched
The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave
Alms to the meek the volcano burst
sulphur and aureate rocks
For joy rides in stupendous coverings
Luring the living into
spiritual gates.
Orators follow the universe
And radio the complete
laws to the people.
The apostle conveys thought through discipline.
Bowls and cups fill historians with adorations
Dull lips commemorating
spiritual gates.

The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally born a
chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.
Dolphins still played, arching the horizons,
But only to build memories of spiritual gates.

When a minor poem cheats, it is plagiarism; when a major poet deceives, it is an hommage

Plagiarism is a complex issue in the Arts. Are found poems plagiarism? What about a cento? What about the practices of Robert Duncan, the Romantic genius, who built a poem out of phrases from Milton's The Reason of Church Government? What about the translations of Pound, which are not translations, but creative mistranslations out of the Latin. What about Homage to Sextus Propertius? Etc. Are all modern poems (written by poets) in exile, as Harold Bloom would argue, stuck in hermetical, kabbalistic ratios with previous works. Perhaps, that's an extreme view, but originality has become a difficult term in modern practices. And what about the visual world of Tumblr where site rips of site, where one site stealing from another site is seen as a "liking" and to be encouraged. Nothing original, just re-cycling of ideas. I recall my annoyance when a Tumblr account lifted examples of my artwork and of other friends. I expected uniform condemnation, but the responses split us. One camp wanted the Tumblr site taken down for plagiarism and breach of copyright. Another camp where flattered and saw it as good publicity.

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