(un)original sin

plagiarism seems to be the meme of the month, which brings me back to a theme i’ve explored before – the notion of originality in the Internet era. after all, what is plagiarism but a pronouned lack of originality?

it’s probably not an original idea (i haven’t googled it yet), but the Internet is making it easier to spot plagiarism and lack of originality. not only that, but networked communications with topic-centric filters make it easy to disseminate and/or locate the purported sins of the potential offenders. once google indexes everything ever published in the history of mankind, the situation for the aspiring plagiarist is looking rather grim.
the definition of plagiarism is actually a bit slippery. here are a few possible definitions:

the act of taking and passing off as one’s own (the ideas, writings, etc. of another).

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

The willful act of presenting another person’s work as one’s own.

See the Athabasca University glossary

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as if it were your own, whether you mean to or not. ‘Someone else’s work’ means anything that is not your own idea, even if it is presented in your own style. It includes material from books, journals or any other printed source, the work of other students or staff, information from the Internet, software programs and other electronic material, designs and ideas. It also includes the organization or structuring of any such material.

See the Victoria, University of Wellington, NZ student glossary.

there are a few points of variation or distinction here that i’ll boil down to ICE:

  • intent: was the appropriation of work or ideas intentional or not? if it was unintentional, did it occur because the work had been seen or read before, or was it a completely random coincidence?
  • content: what was the nature of the replication? was it literal transcription? paraphrasing? vaguely similar structure? what fraction of an idea constitutes the same idea?
  • extent: how much was copied or paraphrased or otherwise pilfered? was it one memorable phrase out of a 1000-page book? what if the phrase was only tangential to the central thrust of the book? what if it were one page?

it all seems totally subjective, which explains to me why there is so much debate lately about relative degrees of guilt and culpability, even if one discovers and communicates the idea that plagiarism has occurred.
but let’s forget about the vagaries of meaning in the word, and assume that we can agree on a definition. "is this work plagiarism?" an omniscient, neutral third-party observer (i.e., God), might be able to answer, but only withiin the boundaries of our definition. if everyone had simultaneous access to this omniscient source, we could all know whether or not something was original. of course, no such omniscient source seems to exist (or at least, to make itself available to us), so we’re left to a more subjective assessment. in other words, i basically reject the notion of Platonic (objective) assessment of original ideas; it doesn’t matter whether or not the same idea has been had before in principle – what matters is whether anyone knows or not.

so, if one agrees that knowing is what counts, we’re left with two challenges:

  1. discovery: one needs to find the crime, as it were. our source material needs to be compared with all other available work and ideas (i.e., the entire body of recorded human knowledge) to determine whether or not it is wholly original. this is possible in theory, but not (even at present) in practice. some monk in outer mongolia could have had the same idea, but this is irrelevant unless he made it known in some public forum (books, magazines, discussions at the local bazaar passed down by word of mouth, etc.).
  2. communication: once something is discovered as plagiarism, the discoverer needs to communicate it to the rest of the world (or some subset thereof).

the challenge of discovery
in the distant past, an ocean (or even a few hundred miles) was enough to mask a lack of originality or cloak the sin of plagiarism. the spread of knowledge was slow, and similar ideas were likely to crop up in many places, either by coincidence or not, and the likelihood of discovering the similarity was slim.

the internet erases geography and the temporal delays associated with transporting physical representation of ideas. it also adds a very crucial feature: search. if i can take passages or statistically improbable phrases or other things, and drop them into a search engine, how much more quickly will i be able to discern similarities between one work and another? how often are these judgments accurate? how much are they apophenia? outright transcription will be very easy to spot, fuzzier borrowing of ideas more difficult, but i’d bet eventually possible to some degree.

the other thing to consider is basic statistics: the number of readers is increasing as the population grows, and as the number of people who have access to books or other forms of knowledge increases.

the challenge of communication
the internet has effectively turned this into a non-issue. the bulk of the world’s population has network access, in one form or another, and anyone who doesn’t might know someone who does. post something somewhere (on the Web, in an email), and odds are that someone on the network will grab it and run with it like digital wildfire, making it available for broad (global) consumption and analysis – metcalf’s law writ large.

so who cares?
as i mentioned, the US media is rife with stories about plagiarism these days. it seems that a lot of people care, based on the level of media coverage. i wonder, is this true in general, or is there something about the current zeitgeist that heightens sensitivity to falsehood and misrepresentation? alternatively, is it just sensational, with the media inflating the relative importance of plagiarism in people’s minds?
one could argue that the current US administration’s approach to the notion of truth has eroded many people’s faith. they don’t know what to believe any more. who can really parse the triple-talk coming out of the White House? who believes traditional media outlets completely? whose version of the truth is the closest to the actual one, if there even is such a thing? i don’t think anyone knows any more. i certainly don’t.

we’ve reached a point where we seem powerless to hold our leaders responsible for misrepresentation of the truth, for prevarication, for equivocation. when a supposed plagiarist is thrust into the spotlight, we can shift our scorn and anger, showering the accused with righteous indignation.

or maybe it’s just good, old-fashioned schadenfreude.

in either case, the Internet is changing the way we look at ideas, and it’s going to be progressively harder to have original ones.

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2 thoughts on “(un)original sin

  1. Rebecca Green

    A year or so ago, Greg met up with an old professor of his, and that professor told a harrowing tale of how many college students are plagarists these days. Apparently his TA googled some key phrases from every single term paper, and found that something like 20% of students (Greg, was it even more than that?) had directly lifted large chunks of verbiage from various websites. So, sure, the internet is a fabulous tool for detecting plagarism. But it’s also reponsible for bostering it.


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