Richard Posner’s book, The Little Book of Plagiarism, provides an explicit, concise, and explorative issue of plagiarism, which has been bedeviling the socio-cultural landscape in the fields of art, music, literature, and film. The widespread media punditry has been catalyzed via increasing theft of intellectual property by renowned scholars and celebrated novelists. Among the notable examples of plagiarism accusations illustrated in the book are directed towards personalities such as Kaavya Viswanathan, Professor Charles Ogletree, and historian Stephen Ambrose. The book explains the idea of plagiarism and how its definition and content has been altered over the years as a result of cultural and historical transformations. Among the concepts illustrated in the book are cryptomnesia, mysterious motives, and curious excuses. The book is provocative, extraordinary, and insightful in its analysis. This essay attempts to explore different thoughts on the topic of plagiarism as illustrated by Posner and how academic credit writing in an educational setting can be effectively executed.
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Concepts in The Little Book of Plagiarism
Posner explores different concepts and approaches in an attempt to develop comprehensive and acceptable definition of plagiarism. For instance, through exploration of the odds behind the concept of plagiarism, Posner is left with more questions than answers as technology shifts the definition of what is considered intellectual property theft. At last, Posner settles on defining plagiarism as a “nonconsequential fraudulent copying”.1 Posner confesses that the definition has a certain element of deficiency. In relation to writing for academic credit in an educational setting, Posner’s definition of plagiarism is a guide to the frequency of direct copying from other sources. Though the act might be nonconsequential, it is deceptive to copy other works without accrediting the source or claiming it is a personal work. In academic writing, committing such a fraud might lead to serious consequences as in the case of Professor Charles Ogletree. For instance, depending on the policy of an educational institution, fraudulent copying of secondary material might lead to academic disqualification or intellectual ridicule. Posner’s example of accusations against Professor Charles Ogletree on plagiarism, whether right or wrong, resulted in intellectual debates and personality mockery of the respected Harvard University don.
Posner discusses the typical retributions or punishments that accompany plagiarism accusations to include private sanctions, characterized by a lifetime stigma. For instance, in academic writing for credit in an educational setting, the punishment as a result of personal sanctions might grow in unending mental torture when the culprit is arraigned to answer to the charges before the university senate or disciplinary board. Moreover, such an individual might be forced to do an open and public apology letter or even be expelled from the department or campus. Some of these punishments are very harsh and result in unimaginable mental and physical torture. As illustrated by Posner, “the stigma of plagiarism never seems to fade completely, not because it is an especially heinous offense, but because it is embarrassingly second-rate; its practitioners are pathetic, almost ridiculous”.2 Therefore, writing for academic credit in an educational setting should be free from plagiarism since the culprit might face the same fate as suggested by Posner.
Posner’s book also scrutinizes the divergences and confluences between copyright infringement and the act of plagiarism. Basically, the author states that plagiarism and copyright infringement are two concepts that are often confused to mean the same thing. Unlike plagiarism, copyright infringement is subject to specific terms engagement. Reflectively, “after a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and can be copied by anyone, without legal liability”.3 Thus, copyright laws are not limited to the copying of a general idea or theme. From an academic writing perspective, paraphrasing or borrowing a common suggestion cannot be treated as copyright infringement, but might be considered plagiarism. Although the act of borrowing a theme and using the same in academic writing is acceptable and non prosecutable, it goes against the principles of what is considered as plagiarism according to Posner. Therefore, academic writing for credit in an educational setting should be done in a way that it respects the copyright but does not allow plagiarism. For instance, I would be keen to borrow themes for academic writing from secondary materials but attempt to avoid fraudulent copying of the material without acknowledging the source.
The concept of self-plagiarism is explored by Posner in terms of its principles and explained why it is still considered as fraudulent copying. Although it is not illegal to copy and paste own previous work in a current writing, the act is still a form of plagiarism. For instance, self-plagiarism cannot be related to copyright infringement though it remains an act of fraudulent copy. Posner illustrates the concept of self-plagiarism in the love letters written by Laurence Sterne to a mistress.4 Hilariously, Sterne lifts lines verbatim from the previous letters he wrote to his wife and paste them in the letter addressed to his mistress. In academic writing, the act of self-plagiarism is still punishable in the same measure as normal plagiarism. For instance, in an academic institution, a research paper that has failed to pass a plagiarism test due to self-plagiarism may be rejected and its author subjected to regulations for punishing plagiarism. Therefore, self-plagiarism should be avoided in academic writing for credit.
Another concept explored by Posner is the ease with which the modern technology can help in plagiarism detection. For instance, Posner discusses the successes of different plagiarism detection kits such as Turnitin, which is currently a major educational tool in most institutions. Apparently, the successes of such softwares have improved the fight against plagiarism since it has the potential of deterring culprits on the spot. For example, a report on Turnitin provides a scrutiny of the origin of all sources and percentage of plagiarism just by a click of a button. As illustrated by Posner, such technological advancements are good since they make detection of fraudulent copying easier and quicker. Moreover, as a deterring tool, it encourages consistency in marinating the originality in writing.5 In relation to academic writing for credit in an educational setting, it is important to avoid plagiarism since different detectors such as Turnitin will display the results in a matter of seconds. This means that passing a plagiarized academic paper as authentic can now be detected and should be avoided. Apparently, the consequences of detection of plagiarism in an academic paper would result in disqualification and other punishments in line with the rules of each institution.
Posner is satiric at the double standards in dealing with the concern of plagiarism in academic institutional settings. Specially, Posner is worried by the unfairness and imbalanced punishment of plagiarism culprits. Apparently, Posner notes that academic staff accused of plagiarism seems to get away with this act after a minor and undisclosed punishment while students are subjected to a complex retribution process. In the worst case scenario, a student might even be expelled from an institution of learning while a professor accused of a similar offense might actually escape punishment. Posner blatantly complains that “the Left, which dominates intellectual circles in the United States, is soft on plagiarism”.6 Although this argument is sensual and exposes the biasness in handling plagiarism between academic staff and students, it is silent on the nature and motive of plagiarism. For instance, in an education institutional setting, it would be wrong to argue that the incidence of lecturers replicating their own work as class notes is equal to the act of a student fraudulently copying secondary material in his or her final academic paper submission. Although the two incidences are characterized as self-plagiarism and general plagiarism, the second option is both illegal and against the academic writing regulations. Therefore, Posner’s argument should be a warning to a potential culprit of plagiarism to desist from this vice, especially in academic writing for credit. It would be wrong to take credit for what is fraudulently copied from another source.
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The views of Posner on plagiarism are an eye opener on the phenomenon of academic dishonesty, which is not limited to a section of the society. Apparently, everyone has a potential of being a victim as long as fraudulent copying of a secondary sources of information is concerned. Within the field of educational setting, writing for academic credit should be done with honesty and proper acknowledgement of all secondary sources of information. Moreover, self-plagiarism should also be avoided to prevent potential punishments for being a culprit. Although most of the punishments might be minor, their impacts on an individual’s academic integrity may be a lifetime. Therefore, an academic writing for credit should be done within the principles of honesty, integrity, and personal respect to avoid facing the consequences of plagiarism. In order to confirm if the academic paper is plagiarism free, a writer might use checkers such as Turnitin to make adjustments on the basis of the results before submission.
In summary, The Little Book of Plagiarism provides an insightful trenchant commentary about different concepts in plagiarism such its definition, copyright infringement, self-plagiarism, and related punishments through practical examples of famous cases. Posner uses the examples of plagiarism accusations directed at distinguished academicians and celebrated authors to support his claim about the magnitude of plagiarism. Through a series of well-reasoned arguments, Posner has succeeded in exploring the current academic illness that is associated with plagiarism. Posner provides solutions such as use of Technology to detect and deter widespread plagiarism. Some the punishments identified by Posner include expulsion, suspension, and ridicule, which might have a lifetime physical and psychological effects on the victim, whether proven guilty or not. Therefore, in academic writing for credit in an educational setting, it is important to avoid fraudulent copying or taking credit for a secondary source of information as own to avoid different forms of punishments that depend on institutional rules and ethical codes of academic integrity.
Posner, Richard. The Little Book of Plagiarism. Pantheon Books, 2007.
- Richard Posner, The Little Book of Plagiarism (Random House Inc., 2007), 33.
- Posner, The Little Book, 37.
- Posner, The Little Book, 12.
- Posner, The Little Book, 68.
- Posner, The Little Book, 80.
- Posner, The Little Book, 94.