Historical writing

The summer months typically see me doing a lot of writing, with the result that I restrict my use of the net a lot more, and my postings become ever more feeble. I notice that this happens to some other academic bloggers as well. In the meantime, I thought that I might post up some parts of the course pack I’m in the middle of updating for the history department. We have a compulsory course for undergraduates called Historical Writing, which introduces them to essay researching and writing skills at university level. The current version of the course was set up very well a couple of years ago by Dr Jon Bulaitis – but this year I’m responsible for it, and I’ve tried to tweak it a little – adding in a few things I care about, drawing on my own teaching experiences, and trying to fit the whole thing around the history of London over the ages. The pack that accompanies the course is more extensive than for others – it’s almost a textbook. I’ve been updating that as well.

Here is the section I’ve just been writing. I should point out this isn’t all rant: there are lots of exercises and tasks on each side, and the seminars deal with lots of material in an approachable fashion. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to spell out more explicitly than ever before why this offence makes us angry, and why it’s usually so stupid as well as so wrong. Comments, as ever, welcome

In 1641, William Ward, a Catholic priest, was executed in London:

He hanged till he was dead for he was ript whilst he did hang & being cut downe his members being cut off & cast into the fire, the Executioner ript him up and tooke his heart & threwe it into the fire which lept out againe & no man toucht it till the Executioner a goodwhile after threwe it in againe, his head and quarters were brought backe to Newgate & boyled & are to be set upon 4 gates of the Citty. (1)

Anybody who could inflict this sort of suffering and despoliation on another human being was plainly motivated by enormous passion, anger and fear. Yet most historians would consider this too light a punishment for those found guilty of plagiarism.

You are plagiarising if you:
o Repeat someone’s words without attributing them or putting them in quotation marks. Making a few superficial changes to a text is still plagiarism.
o Repeat someone’s argument without referring to the source.
Typical examples of plagiarism include copying direct out of a book, cutting and pasting from internet sites, and copying the work of other students.

Normally, lecturers spot plagiarised work quickly by themselves. You cannot come to an institution full of experts, copy work that they almost certainly already know, and get away with it. In addition, however, the History Department uses a Plagiarism Detection Service. This is highly advanced software that accesses a database of previously submitted essays, journal articles and over four billion web pages. The service gives a precise numeric indication of the similarity between an essay and other sources.

When caught, those who have plagiarised tend to have two excuses. Some claim that they didn’t know what they were doing: since you are taking this course, this is not a route which will be open to you. Others will plead that they acted in desperation because an essay was due in and bad planning or personal crisis left them without enough time to research it properly. These people have compounded disorganisation or tragedy with stupidity. Hastily done plagiarism is particularly easy to spot without any electronic aid or extra research: so they are almost inevitably caught. Rather than get a lower mark for an essay that is poor or late, they get no marks at all and a stain on their permanent record. They are despised by their lecturers because they have broken their trust. Disciplinary action may follow. If you find yourself in this situation, visit your advisor, ask for an extension from the senior tutor or accept that you should learn to plan your time better. Do anything other than plagiarise.

Why should we care about plagiarism?
We live in a world in which electronic media have made plagiarism easier than ever before. Why should we be bothered about it, and why does it antagonise lecturers so much?

1) Plagiarism is wrong.
You are grown adults and we expect you to be able to have a moral compass and know how to use it.

2) Plagiarism is the theft of something particularly valuable.
The word comes from the Plagiarii, pirates who in ancient times sailed the Mediterranean Sea and kidnapped children. Plagiarism is kidnapping the ideas of other people – their brainchildren. Academics’ ideas are the product of years of hard work, usually insufficiently recompensed. We work not for monetary reward but because we love our subject. All we ask in return is recognition of our ability to interpret and to think. Do not take that away.

3) Plagiarism is cheating.
When you try to pass off words that aren’t your own in a piece of assessed written work, you are attempting to devalue the degree of every person in your year. Should you get away with it, your degree will not reflect your real abilities as a historian.

4) Plagiarism indicates a lack of respect for your lecturers.
If you present a piece of plagiarised work, you imply that you think that we are not clever, or not passionate enough about our subject, to catch you. This is a direct assault on who we are. We will respond fiercely.

Three ways to avoid plagiarism:

• as you read, do not copy chunks of text but summarise arguments in your own words;
• when you want to note a detailed point from a text, do not copy but paraphrase;
• learn an accepted method of referencing (see Unit Five).

(1) Archdiocese of Westminster Archives, XXX, no 17, An Account by Cuthbert Clopton of William Ward’s martyrdom, 23 July 1641.

(with acknowledgements and thanks to Jon Bulaitis (particularly for the root of plagiarism) and to Alex Tompkins for finding a suitably grisly martyrdom)


5 Responses to Historical writing

  1. Alan Allport says:

    Hmmm … perhaps it’s just because I’ve spent too long within the US educational system, where self-esteem is all, but the tone here seems unecessarily confrontational. Is hectoring the best way of getting the (undoubtedly important) message across? Also, overconfidence in ‘highly advanced software’ – which we all know has significant limitations in practice – might come across as a positive challenge to some smart computer-savvy kids.

    And having just read Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble (great title! Sounds like a pulp novel), which describes how several successful American authors (e.g. Ambrose, Goodwin) have gotten away with blatant acts of plagiarism by brazening it out, I don’t think I could tell students in good conscience that their sins will inevitably lead to them being ‘despised’ and cast out by their peers. An acknowledgement that even Real Grown-Up Historians do this sometimes – and that the discipline doesn’t always punish them in the way that it should – wouldn’t, I think, detract from the overall argument. It might be regarded as refreshingly honest.

  2. Jack says:

    Hmmm….my overall reaction is the opposite of Alan’s. (Which is healthy). I would suggest that you’ve erred on the side of gentleness and ever-so-slightly vague abstraction on what I consider a very simple, concrete issue. I am the first to admit that my teaching experience to date is very limited, but I’ve already given my own version of The Plagiarism ”Lecture” several times – indeed, it is the last thing I repeat to students before they disappear to write assessments – and, thus far, it has worked well. (Although maybe someone can tell me – just how rife, statistically, is plagiarism at Undergraduate level?)

    Alan is right to highlight broader problems within the Academy, but I try to make this issue a more personal and direct one. To avoid being overly confrontational, however, I work it in as the last of my ‘ground rules’ (which I always establish very clearly at the outset with any group). By putting this at the end of the ‘I hope you’ll find me supportive and approachable, you can email me at any time, the tone in these seminars will be constructive and encouraging’, etc intro, it has a greater impact. The sub-text is, I suppose, that plagiarism is the bottom line with me, and will lead to them being ‘despised’ by _me_ – the old ‘you’ll be letting the college down, letting yourself down and letting me down’ chestnut (of which I was recently reminded). But this _hint_ of emotional investment/blackmail has, thus far, only helped to get the message across.

    95% of what you’ve written tallies with all of this (and the martyrdom example is great) but, as I will be teaching on this course, I’d suggest clarifying your message just a tad. Specifically:

    – “When caught, those who have plagiarised tend to have two excuses. Some claim that they didn’t know what they were doing: since you are taking this course, this is not a route which will be open to you.” I think that final clause should be much less coy – perhaps as blunt as: ‘Some claim that they didn’t know what they were doing: you know now’?

    – “Moral compass” jars with me (uber-Blairite/Brownite, I’m not entirely sure what it means, and they may not be either). I’ll admit I like the ‘old school’ right/wrong ‘you are now adults’ line. Checked with lawyer (dad!) and ability to distinguish between them is indeed the first step for a child in proving “legal capacity” (ie., to give evidence in court); hence, arguably, the very first legally-defined stage towards adulthood. So how about a variant of ‘1) Plagiarism is wrong. You are grown adults. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong is a fundamental part of the legal definition of being an adult.’ Maybe tack on the old ‘rights bring with them responsibilities’ equation, in some form – ‘In order for us to treat you as adults, we expect you to/you must behave as adults.’

    – To balance all that, I wonder if slipping in, in one of your numbered points (perhaps about Academics), ‘how would you feel if someone stole parts of an essay you’ve worked on long and hard’? Or some such. Bring the issue back to them.

    I do usually conclude my speil on this issue by saying, with blunt confidence: ‘We Will Catch You. You Will Fail. Do You Understand?’ No one, thus far, has decided to take this as a challenge. But I usually counteract this by finishing with ‘you can cite whoever you like. Cite them properly and you’re not plagiarising. Don’t cite them properly and you are plagiarising. Simple as that. So not citing them is just stupid, isn’t it?’ Thus far, all have nodded sagely in agreement…

  3. K Wright says:

    Some of the blame for plagiarism clearly belongs with the instructors. Not much, but some. With a modest amount of effort, it is possible to craft an assignment that is unique and offers fewer opportunities for copying the works of others.

    Ask a generic question and get a generic response. Ask a specific, unique question and get a unique answer.

  4. […] Filed under: Academic Blogging — trenchfever @ 5:03 pm Thanks to those who commented below, apologies for a belated response. And thanks also to Jack McGowan, who has posted his comments on […]

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