Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Catching Plagiarism

Every Wednesday, I post an essay or two that relates to anything from reading/writing to gaming to anime to life in general.

When we think of authority figures (whether it's our parents, teachers, officials in government or in business, etc.), our initial expectations tend to assume that they're perfect in their field, that they know all the answers. But the reality is, we're all only human. Omniscience is not a human trait yet we often expect this from others, especially in a field such as writing. Let me elaborate.

For me it begins with school. I mean we've heard the threats against cheating or when it comes to the term paper, plagiarism. For some, the threat is enough to deter them. But how many of you have actually tried to plagiarize? That's not to say you won't get caught but I don't think it's possible for any teacher to catch every single plagiarism, especially if the student is using obscure sources (and perhaps not citing them but passing it off as their own idea). Even the most responsible and widely read teacher won't be able to catch every single line: that requires perfect memory and the actual time to peruse all the reading materials in the world. Here in the Philippines, there's even a black market that sells term papers and thesis paper (or if you're lazy, the actual diploma). Unless the entire class is using the same term paper, the teacher might not even get wind of it (of course it becomes suspect if a student writing style doesn't jive with the paper). Ultimately, teachers might try to be as knowledgeable as they can but omniscience simply is beyond human limits.

One pet peeve of mine--and you see it pop up from time to time--is when an author tries to get himself published, gets rejected, and submits another work with lines from a classic novel plagiarized (or sometimes the entire book itself) and then claim that the editor has no taste because they rejected the material. Well, as knowledgeable as editors are, they can't have read every classical work and memorized it line by line. Having said that, there are several reasons why an editor didn't accept your work. One, your manuscript, no matter how good, if it does not fit the target market of the publication, will be rejected (i.e. submitting a fantastic horror murder in a realist publication). Two, a short story or novel is the sum of its parts. The plagiarized piece might really be good but it's just a small section of your manuscript. Sorry, piecemeal excellence isn't enough. Third, a lot of "classic" writing simply isn't as good when compared to todays standards. Critics have complained about Joseph Conrad's writing style for example so plagiarizing Joseph Conrad might not land you in the good graces of an editor. Fourth, maybe the editor did catch your plagiarism. That's why they're rejecting your manuscript. Honestly, if you believe your work is that good, then you don't need to resort to plagiarism and antagonizing editors. That only means they'll read your work with a certain apprehension the next time you try submitting to them, plagiarized work or not.

Third is when judging competitions. A certain recent writing competition had to disqualify one of its winners because of a plagiarized portion. One complaint among the fans is why didn't the judges catch it before deciding that the contestant won an award? Again, it goes back to being knowledgeable about every printed book out there. And it's not just that, you might have been widely read but do you remember the books you read line by line? Likewise, the more obscure the piece is, the more difficult it is to detect. Perhaps the biggest tragedy here is that the writer had to resort to plagiarism. I mean he or she wrote most of the short story anyway. Why not go that extra mile for those few paragraphs? Again, when a judge evaluates a piece, they're looking at the entire thing, not just specific parts.

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