Why Is Plagiarism So Bad? A Comparison to Ancient Literature

As the semester concludes, final papers start to roll in. I have mixed feelings about this time of the term. On the one hand, grading is time-consuming. On the other hand, I care about teaching and giving feedback, so it is rewarding to see all that (most of) the students have learned this term. I often learn interesting things from their papers–and even if I don’t learn anything new, it’s nice to see what was interesting to them.

One of the worst things about this time of the term, however, is discovering plagiarism and other forms of cheating. Our institution recently purchased a service for our electronic paper submissions called TurnItIn, which (among other things) searches for close parallels in student papers to other published work and internet sources. It also compares the submissions against a (private) bank of student papers from other institutions. We have tried to implement this service in the most gentle and instructive way possible, allowing students to submit their papers in advance of the due date to check for accidental plagiarism. However, the students that could most benefit from this service are often the ones who leave their assignments to the last minute and are most easily caught. Those are the most painful conversations to have with students, and I am dreading a few of those meetings this week.

Thankfully, our university allows faculty to draw a distinction between “minimal” and “substantial” plagiarism. An example of minimal plagiarism would be using a verbatim quotation, with citation, but without quotation marks. In this instance, the student clearly intended to acknowledge the source of an idea, but failed to use the established convention of distinguishing between the source’s exact words and his/her own interpretation/paraphrase of those words.


As a student and teacher of ancient literature, this distinction made in our modern literary culture is fascinating to me. We use horrifying words such as “cheating” and “theft” to describe what would have been standard convention in eras past. Ancient texts did not use quotation marks, footnotes, in-text citations, or other forms of attribution. So, why am I as a professor so panicked about students following–for example–the authors of the New Testament in quoting without quotation marks, or alluding without footnotes?

I have previously quoted J.M. Coetzee’s observation on the difference between scribal and print cultures with respect to authorship: “Unlike scribal culture, which is inherently anti-individualist, …print culture fosters ideas of personal fame by multiplying the author-as-signature indefinitely, projecting him both in space and in time into print-made immortality” (Coetzee, “Censorship and Polemic,” as cited by Peter MacDonald, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences). Walter Ong and biblical scholars who have built on his ideas (van der Toorn, Carr, Niditch, etc.) have made similar points about the understanding of authorship in pre-print culture.

Before Gutenberg, every written text was the product of a scribe as well as an “author” of that text (series of words). The scribe’s role included a responsibility to make the text intelligible to the reader, which seems to have entailed a certain freedom with respect to spelling, word choice, arrangement on the page, etc. Various scribal cultures understood this responsibility differently. But once print makes it possible for a text to be reproduced reliably and distributed with zero deviation from the original author’s intent, the author has direct contact with the reader, bypassing the scribal middleman. Thus, as Coetzee observes, the text becomes an extension of the author “in space and in time”–and “authorship” becomes a meaningful concept.

That is why modern print culture takes quotation marks, footnotes and citations so seriously. Because we have this revolutionary concept of authorship, statements such as this make sense to us, where as they would make little sense to ancient peoples: “Plagiarism is the act of stating or implying that another person’s work is your own.”  When words belong to everyone and to no one, a sequence of them cannot be monopolized in this way. Once a sequence of words can be solidified in print and understood as an extension of the individual, plagiarism is false self-representation–it’s fraud.

No one planned or decided that this convention would change as it did in the 16th century. Concerning historical representation, Ricoeur speaks of the implicit “contract” between the author and reader concerning the factual nature of the events described (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, 275). If the author and reader have different understandings of that contract, misunderstanding results. Similarly, different cultural understandings of authorship and attribution result in conflict. In cultures that are not as attuned to modern Western literary culture–such as the cultures from which some of my students come–it is understandable that authorship, citation, quotation marks, and footnotes can be confusing. This is not to excuse their actions: the expectations of our institution have been clearly communicated, and they have many tools to assist them in learning the conventions of modern Western print culture. Part of our job as a Western-style institution in Eastern Europe is to help the students learn how to engage responsibly in the wider academic world according to those conventions.


I wonder whether we are on the verge of significant change as we transition from a “print” age to a “digital” age. You’ll notice that I cited sources in this blog post, but I was certainly sloppier than I would have been if this were an essay for a journal. I used hyperlinks, and didn’t provide full citations. Yet if you wanted to look up any of these citations or allusions, it would take you 30 seconds to find what I was talking about. The ease of looking things up could be an advantage–or it could make us sloppy.

What about print books and journals that appear in electronic format? I cite page numbers in journals that I’ve never held in my hands–yet I use the “page number” convention from the PDF versions of these articles as if I were using hard copies of the journal. Some Kindle books advertise, “Includes real page numbers,” but those that don’t give page numbers still provide numbered “locations” in the ebook that can be cited. Of course, “page numbers” in citations only make sense while there are relatively few print editions; once a book goes into the public domain as a classic, it’s frequently cited using chapter-and-verse or chapter-and-paragraph. Perhaps this is the direction that print books will go to match the digital media.

What about the tacit “contract” between the author and reader of a blog? I try to keep a “high” standard here at THTW (by “high,” I mean, “close to academic print-culture standards”) so you know when it’s me and when it’s someone else. But if I “plagiarize” accidentally on this blog, few people would care–certainly it wouldn’t be the same level of academic transgression as plagiarizing in print. Other blogs or online media have different conventions–who am I to say whether one is better than the other? Citing has a non-zero opportunity cost.

Given how easy it is to copy and paste text, will we see a destabilization of print culture’s ideas of “authorship”? We’ve already seen that multimedia “copyright” owners (music, TV, movies) have been unsuccessful in restricting the copying of sequences of zeros-and-ones without proper “attribution” (i.e., paying for media access). And yet, those companies still make millions of dollars through their copyable art-expressed-by-a-series-of-signs. But beyond the worry “Will authors continue to be paid,” the bigger question is: will the decline of “authorship” in digital culture be detrimental to thought, culture and society?

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society, Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why Is Plagiarism So Bad? A Comparison to Ancient Literature

  1. Pingback: Best of 2014 | think hard, think well

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