Borrowed work: Repercussions of plagiarism differ in education, politics
Roy Peter Clark has been writing about plagiarism since the 1980s and believes the offense may be overstated.
"I think the 'Scarlet P' should be reserved for the most serious sinners," said Clark, popularly known as America's writing coach and working as vice president and senior scholar at the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a nonprofit center for journalists.
Too often, he said, carelessness is labeled as corruption and insignificant reuse of another's work branded as plagiarism.
On Sept. 24, when Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy accused his Republican challenger Tom Foley of stealing portions of his newly released urban policy plan, the Foley camp acknowledged it was "sloppy staff work" and that the borrowed language should have been worded differently or attributed.
A Foley spokesman, however, told The Connecticut Mirror, "Borrowing policy ideas from states that have successfully road-tested new policy initiatives is not plagiarism - it's smart."
With today's Internet and word processor technology, cutting and pasting from other sources is remarkably easy and, in some cases, acceptable.
Some of the regurgitated material that Foley used in his urban policy plan came from the Connecticut Policy Institute, a think tank that Foley founded four years ago after losing his first gubernatorial contest to Malloy.
Clark, the writer, editor and teacher, contends self-plagiarism is not plagiarism at all.
In addition to the charges against Foley, allegations of plagiarism have surfaced in the gubernatorial race in Wisconsin and in a Senate contest in Oregon. But educators believe that society has a higher tolerance for plagiarism when it comes to politicians.
"We don't expect much of politicians, so people kind of take it with a shrug," said Scott L. McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University.
Another professor, Jon Brammer, who is the writing center coordinator at Three Rivers Community College, said there is so much malfeasance in the public sphere these days that few people are surprised when a politician presents someone else's work as his or her own.
"The consequences are so minimal, and it happens so often, no one gets fazed about it anymore," he said.
"Does it hurt a campaign?" Brammer asked. "I'm not a Foley fan, but I doubt it will hurt his campaign at all."
The case can be much different in the education field. Terrence P. Carter, who was selected to be New London's new superintendent of schools earlier this year, lost the job after it was concluded that he had plagiarized portions of his job application.
Scholars believe educators are held to a higher standard, and should be.
"In politics it may well be that people are just not that sensitive to the importance of attributing material, but people in higher education, and even K-12 education, they are well versed in the requirements of attribution," said Ronald Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut. "Educators would be held to particularly high standards, but for political figures, it really is a kind of murky area."
'Temptation is so great'
According to plagiarism.org, plagiarism involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward. But others believe that Internet search tools like Google and online resources such as the collaboratively written online encyclopedia Wikipedia have obscured the rules and made attribution difficult or unnecessary in certain cases.
"The nature of digital technologies are enabling this kind of borrowing," Clark said, adding that taking boilerplate biographical information from a website is not stealing.
"How many ways can you say Roy Peter Clark graduated from Providence College in 1970 with a degree in English?" he asked.
Also, with information just a few key strokes away, it's not uncommon for searchers to find language that mirrors, or improves, on their own thoughts.
"The temptation is so great, the benefits right before your eyes, and the consequences remote," Clark said.
But if "borrowing" is that easy, so is attribution, he said.
The public, however, seems to view plagiarism differently. In the case of Foley's urban policy plan, despite attempts by the opposition to make it an issue, few others seemed to care.
"I think the public may be ahead of us in willing to distinguish between mortal sins and venial sins," Clark said.
"I think the public can tolerate a simple amount of sloppiness in a campaign," said Schurin, the UConn professor.
But there is less tolerance on a college campus, where students know that professors have easy access to search engines and such sites as Blackboard SafeAssign that will quickly determine if submitted work is original or pilfered. And in the case of an academic caught plagiarizing, there is no forgiveness.
"At the university level, faculty will most likely lose their job or be disgraced in their profession," said McLean, the Quinnipiac professor. "And I have a problem understanding why people plagiarize when it's so easy to catch them."
But the standards are changing, and the experts say the public seems more willing to tolerate someone taking a few paragraphs or "snips and clips" of another's work and presenting it as their own.
"If you have a political figure or a celebrity of any kind who essentially commits whole cloth plagiarism, there will be consequences, their reputation will suffer and there will always be a bit of a shadow," Clark said. "But I think it takes more than a paragraph or an apt phrase here or there to get someone in trouble, and maybe that's a good thing."
• Turning in someone else's work as your own.
• Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit.
• Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks.
• Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation.
• Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit.
• Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not.
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