September 9, 2007

A Plagiarist’s Manifesto

Plagiarists of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your alleged originality (and your degree).

Since Socrates, in a Hemlock sip, accepted his punishment for leading astray the frail youth of his times, all that needs to be said has been said. Between truths and untruths there is a gallery of historical figures who have in their way refashioned familiar stories as original. Take any of the great religious figures: the plump laughing Buddha rising to nirvana on account of his balloon belly and the obviously bloated point of the pointlessness of it all ; the Christ of a virgin mother never even having the opportunity to go through the civilising Oedipus complex, the great Prophet of Medina who saw in revamped scripture, old and new, a worthy story for his people; the gods who defy categorisation and who mock the paragraphic order of the west, so truly original that there are multitudinous spirit cults found anywhere in the world where fire, water, earth and air inspire awe and fawning.

Thinking of all of these religious attempts to make sense of our absurd condition we can note that each religion makes of the mystery of life its own puzzle, but few are original in the answers proffered. Religion is plagiarised salvation.

So plagiarists of the world, you have before you a veritable pantheon of would be gods and prophets who have taken from the common stock of knowledge ideas as their own without a quotation mark, let alone a footnote. If gods and prophets plagiarise, why not ordinary mortals? You stand in proud company.

Why then are you marked down and despised? Why are you summoned before austere academic committees that demand explanation of your stolen words?
It is not that you have committed any cardinal sin inherent in the act of plagiarism; it is that you have been discovered. There lies your error, for refashioned thought must always catwalk as this year’s original talk. If summoned, seek forgiveness, look remorseful. And never be caught again. Like a celebrity DJ who makes the original their own you need to jive so that you spin the original as your own.

Student plagiarism, if correctly done, is politely ignored. If they can’t Google the quoted phrase, they won’t find it. There are basically three ways of winning the plagiarism game, each corresponding to a level of aspired level academic achievement. The brilliant plagiarist aspires to a first class mark, the mediocre plagiarist aspires to a second class but can accept lower, the idiotic plagiarist merely aspires to pass, but rarely does.

1. Brilliant Plagiarism

This is the gravest sin, for you have set yourself above your teachers. The brilliant plagiarist is discovered as a consequence of not having convinced the tutor of their right to play at a high intellectual level. When a student writes brilliantly the tutor becomes suspicious. The following question occurs to him or her: Could I, a PhD, have written such a piece as an 18-22 year old?

To avoid being charged with plagiarism because of brilliance (and the resulting envy of the tutor), it is necessary to prepare the tutor to think you are capable of such brilliance. So, how to do this? The answer is to attend a few tutorials, and no more, and look bored, brilliantly bored. Snort with exasperation as other students say the most obvious of things. Purse your lips at the politeness of the tutor who praises as ‘interesting’ the tedious comments of ill-informed students. Make the tutor feel inferior with impossible questions of an epistemological nature. Intimidate. If you succeed in creating an atmosphere of psychological-superiority-complex, when your essay is marked by the said wretched tutor, he or she will masochistically realise that your snorts in class were a consequence of your transcendental wisdom being exposed to the banality of other people’s low intelligence.

Mediocre Plagiarism.

This is the most commonly successful form of plagiarism. You write, or transcribe, an essay of such overwhelming obviousness no one could fault you for absorbing the Zeitgeist of the age. If you are so obvious as to be stating the obvious, then no one will suspect you of plagiarism, just mediocrity. You can succeed in this form of plagiarism by appearing either dull or busy. For good workpersonship, expect a second class mark at least; but if you screw up the mark can be lesser still. The key to mediocre plagiarism lies in appearing overly busy with all sorts of extra-curricula activities that have distracted you from your studies. The tutor will sympathise with your busy work load and mark you up, even if some of the words seem disturbingly familiar and the overall effort is just passable. It is also possible to get a good mark even if you appear incapable of original thought. Be the kind of student who echoes eloquently that which surrounds them. Be the diligent voice of the age. Better still, to avoid any suspicion, find a tutor who believes in the “death of the author”, if they have any self-respect they are not going to charge you with plagiarism, even if various passages sound familiar.

Idiotic Plagiarism
I am afraid that for this kind of plagiarist there is not much hope. They set Shakespeare or Bertrand Russell against their own prose in the same essay. They have no idea of equivalence. The tutor, having been moved by the plagiarised paragraphs then comes across passages of such a faecal quality that plagiarism is suspected. So what to do for the no-hoper who wishes to pass a degree with no effort? The answer lies not in juxtaposition of brilliance and banality, of delicate prose next to egregious waffle. It lies in the earnest production of consistent banality. In other words, dumb down. Turn Yeats into your own prose. Make T. S Eliot sound like the Spice Girls. By dumbing down your stolen phrases you give reason for the marker to admire your ideas, while lamenting your prose as a product of some trauma.

1 comment:

Jon Fernquest said...

"If they can’t Google the quoted phrase.."

Golly, if plagiarism of the phrase is all they're doing, bless their little hearts.

If they lifted a sentence from someone else's text and burrowed
inside of it (like a little Tarantula laying its eggs in the carcass of its mate, non-Australian variety, for instance) if they burrow into the phrase, and make it their own, snipping its head off and replacing it with, head of a noun phrase that is, modifiers and what not, then three cheers for this healthy normal well-adjusted mature adult language using habit, along with intertextuality too and all that.

I have my little red notebook that I record plagiarism (and other forms of questionable intellectual honesty) by western scholars in my area of specialisation, pre-modern Burmese history, and believe me there is quite a lot recorded in it already (more attributable to laziness than postmodernism me thinks).