Saturday, October 31, 2015

Plagiarism Case Study, or, Holy Teachable Moment!

Brian Wise, a music writer for WQXR who contributed stories to NPR, was fired this past week (10/28/2015) for plagiarism. In an amazing exhibit of transparency, NPR has posted all of the offending passages found, along with links to the source materials from which Wise stole.

What I find most interesting is that Wise often tweaked and adjusted the plagiarized passages so that they would fit within the rest of his writing, the vast majority of which appears to be original. In other words, Wise was doing what students are tempted to do: visiting websites and borrowing a small number of phrases and sentences without attribution. If Wise were a student facing our school's honor council, he might well escape with a letter of warning.

Wise’s apology sounds almost exactly like what students of mine have said when caught red-handed in plagiarism cases. Although Wise acknowledges responsibility, he minimizes his guilt by calling his lapses “unintentional” and saying, “NPR and WQXR have identified some sentences and phrases in my work that were similar to those used in other media outlets.” Similar, my eye--many of the stolen passages are word-for-word duplicates. However, if using Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V (copy and paste) is a habit, then I agree with him that at least some of his lapses were unintentional.

Idea: Require all initial drafts to be written in longhand or banged out on an old-fashioned typewriter, so that there is no temptation to use Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. Such a policy would help professionals as well as students.

Wise surely knew that there is a correct way to use an unusual turn of a phrase (e.g., “lumpy piety” taken from a 3/13/2000 article by Mark Swed and used in Wise's 4/19/2013 WQXR blog post), and there is a wrong way. The correct way is to give a tip of the hat to the author, saying something like, “The symphonies exhibit, in the words of Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, a certain lumpy piety.” The wrong way is to use Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V.