Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Young Misadventures in Plagiarism

There's a quote or some variant of a quote, attributed to everyone from T.S.Eliot to Oscar Wilde to Aaron Sorkin, that "good writers borrow, great writers steal." 

I've never "stolen" anything in my life. Not even the drugstore lipstick my friends loved to shoplift from a pharmacy near our high school, and certainly not words; although surely I must borrow all the time, if only subconsciously. I guess that makes me a good writer at best, but I'd rather be mediocre than a thief.

I didn't refrain from theft out of principled virtue or a delicate moral compass, necessarily, but simply because I was afraid of authority and a total rules follower. Just the thought of getting caught doing something dishonest or wrong--and certainly I would be caught--set my heart racing to the point that it was unpleasant even to contemplate such conduct, much less engage in it.

The whole kerfuffle over Trump campaign speech-writing plagiarism brought to mind the two times in my life I was accused of plagiarism. One was in junior high, and the other was in law school. I remember them so well because of how terrifying it was to be falsely accused of something and not necessarily be able to prove it. It was almost like a microscopic, childish window into wrongful conviction.

"THIS LOOKS LIKE PLAGIARISM!" I can't remember her name, but I still remember my seventh grade history teacher's angry, scarlet scrawl across the front of a paper I'd handed in about the beginning of World War II. The word "plagiarism" was extra big, and underlined perhaps ten times. 

I stared at the four-word indictment in horrified disbelief, mindlessly running my finger across the serrated edge of the paper you used with an old-school printer connected to an Apple II-E; the kind that sounded like a lawnmower, slowly regurgitated the paper in a long spool, and required you to separate it by hand, carefully tearing off the little ticker-tape margins punctured with tiny holes that connected to the printer hardware. 

My father was livid. He knew I was an imperfect person with many faults, and he wasn't afraid to point them out. But a plagiarist? No. Certainly not. 

I don't remember how the situation resolved exactly, but it involved my dad. And in the end, the teacher understood I had not plagiarized anything, which in fact I had not. Before the internet, plagiarism was both more difficult to commit and more difficult to detect; but whatever my dad said to this teacher satisfied her that my paper had been original work.

Later in law school, I was past the point of calling in my dad to defend my honor. The accusation was smaller in size, physically, and more subtle; but it was much more significant because I was in law school and not junior high. 

The adjunct professor in a class on legal writing hand-wrote on a draft pleading I'd submitted: "The language in this complaint looks very familiar. Did you use a sample?" For non-lawyers out there, "plagiarism" in the world of legal writing is sort of a different animal, simply because there are a limited number of ways to cite and discuss cases and statutes, and recite established principles of law grounded in specific words. Lawyers often rely on templates and each others' work to restate this stuff, and it's perfectly ethical and acceptable to do so. The fact that something might "look familiar" in legal writing is a given.

That being said, I had not "used a sample" beyond whatever course materials and direction were provided. Was this professor--whose name I've also managed to forget--accusing me of plagiarism? It was hard to tell, but I was determined to find out.

I sat down in the basement computer lab of my law school in Brooklyn and composed a long, indignant email, the articulate nature of which I'd hoped would serve the dual purpose of putting this guy in his place and proving I was too good a writer to resort to plagiarism. 

I don't recall what I said verbatim, but it was something along the lines of "I can't tell if you're implying I plagiarized something here, or are accusing me of plagiarism, but that's a very serious accusation. And if that what you're suggesting, I'd like to see some proof." 

He never responded. When the semester ended and I went to check my grades, I saw he'd given me an A.

Who knows why people plagiarize or are tempted to. Surely a lack of ethics and laziness both play a role, but insecurity and fear must too. People must plagiarize for the same reasons I've been tempted to cheat on math tests: I suck at math. But I just accepted that I sucked at math, rather than cheat on a math test. If you're someone as powerful as the Trumps, you can just hire a decent speech writer and then not fuck with their work product. 

Then again, we rank-and-file mortals live in a world where there are actual consequences for our mendacity. I guess if you never suffer the regular consequences of lying, and you've sailed within striking distance of the White House on a raft of lies, why stop now?


  1. I once plagiarized. It was a writing assignment I was basically too lazy to complete, and saw an opportunity. The teacher was suspicious, called me up after class, and asked me, "Did you write this?" I went through a painstaking effort to gather up sources and explain the reasoning to prove I wrote this paper — which I did not. The teacher was satisfied and gave me credit. It was a terrible blunder. It still makes me cringe when I think about, even though it was decades ago.

    What's funny is I would have never cheated on a math test. More than getting caught, I was ethically opposed to the idea. Writing I considered more fluid. Also, it was easy for me, and I generally did well, so skipping out of an assignment didn't seem like a big deal. We always learn from our mistakes.

    But I agree, the fact that the Trumps are baffled and indignant about the backlash only proves how deep their lies run.

  2. I feel for the woman who allegedly did it.


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