Commentary: Plagiarism in Our Culture

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Dr. Crystal Sands, Director, Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Excelsior College.

Dr. Crystal Sands, Director, Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Excelsior College.

Today on Excelsior Commentary, Dr. Crystal Sands discusses the most recent high-profile plagiarism incidents and what it says about our culture.

Plagiarism has been in the news a lot lately—a lot. In the last few months, we have seen a rash of high-profile plagiarism incidents. Even writers of hit TV shows are not immune. Some of the accused admit they were wrong and apologize. Some, not so much.

When Buzzfeed’s political writer, Benny Johnson, was dismissed for plagiarism, he issued a public apology via Twitter, though many of his Twitter followers seemed less than impressed. Last fall, when Senator Rand Paul was accused of plagiarism, he admitted his mistake but then took a different tactic and turned it against the journalists who were calling him out for plagiarism, accusing them of being poor journalists.

Of course, this begs the question: Just how does one handle a plagiarism accusation gracefully, especially if that accusation is true?

This question is not a new one, and we do not have a lot of clear answers. Though we have seen much in the news about plagiarism in the last few months, this is not a new phenomenon. Writers, politicians, professionals, and students have been plagiarizing—either accidentally or on purpose—since long before the existence of copyright laws. It seems the difference is now we are more aware that plagiarism is wrong. Or are we? Do we even understand what plagiarism is?

Plagiarism is taking the words or ideas of others without giving credit, but what constitutes “taking” varies from situation to situation, discipline to discipline, culture to culture. For example, some cultures consider copying a form of flattery, which leads to some serious confusion when students from those cultures enter American culture and begin to write.

Read the rest of Dr. Sands’ column on Excelsior Commentary.

  • terrilynnmerritts

    Great article! We can want to avoid plagiarism but wind up plagiarizing anyway if we aren’t clear on the rules and the rules are confusing at times. Another sort of plagiarizing is the misuse of trademarks. How many people write about “xeroxing the paperwork” when they mean “photocopying the paperwork?” Xerox is a registered trade name. A few years back, several companies put big ads in Writer’s Digest Magazine, a publication for writers, showing their trademarks and explaining how to use them with the trademark symbol and that the trademarks should not be used as generic words. Xerox was one of them.