April 05, 2006

On writing-2: Why do we cite other people's work?

In the previous post on this topic, I discussed the plagiarism case of Ben Domenech, who had lifted entire chunks of other people's writings and had passed them off as his own.

How could he have done such a thing? After all, all high school and college students get the standard lecture on plagiarism and why it is bad. And even though Domenech was home schooled, it seems unlikely that he thought this was acceptable practice. When he was confronted with his plagiarism, his defense was not one of surprise that it was considered wrong but merely that he had been 'young' when he did it or that he had got permission from the author to use their words or that the offending words had been inserted by his editors.

The cautionary lectures that students receive about plagiarism are usually cast in a moralistic way, that plagiarism is a form of stealing, that taking someone else's words or ideas without proper attribution is as morally reprehensible as taking their money.

What is often overlooked in this kind of approach is that there are many other reasons why writers and academics cite other people's works when appropriate. By focusing too much on this stealing aspect, we tend to not give students an important insight into how scholarship and research works.

Russ Hunt at St. Thomas University argues that writers cite others for a whole complex of reasons that have little to do with avoiding charges of plagiarism:

[P]ublished scholarly literature is full of examples of writers using the texts, words and ideas of others to serve their own immediate purposes. Here's an example of the way two researchers opened their discussion of the context of their work in 1984:

To say that listeners attempt to construct points is not, however, to make clear just what sort of thing a 'point' actually is. Despite recent interest in the pragmatics of oral stories (Polanyi 1979, 1982; Robinson 1981), conversations (Schank et al. 1982), and narrative discourse generally (Prince 1983), definitions of point are hard to come by. Those that do exist are usually couched in negative terms: apparently it is easier to indicate what a point is not than to be clear about what it is. Perhaps the most memorable (negative) definition of point was that of Labov (1972: 366), who observed that a narrative without one is met with the "withering" rejoinder, "So what?" (Vipond & Hunt, 1984)

It is clear here that the motives of the writers do not include prevention of charges of plagiarism; moreover, it's equally clear that they are not. . .attempting to "cite every piece of information that is not a) the result of your own research, or b) common knowledge." What they are doing is more complex. The bouquet of citations offered in this paragraph is informing the reader that the writers know, and are comfortable with, the literature their article is addressing; they are moving to place their argument in an already existing written conversation about the pragmatics of stories; they are advertising to the readers of their article, likely to be interested in psychology or literature, that there is an area of inquiry -- the sociology of discourse -- that is relevant to studies in the psychology of literature; and they are establishing a tone of comfortable authority in that conversation by the acknowledgement of Labov's contribution and by using his language --"withering" is picked out of Labov's article because it is often cited as conveying the power of pointlessness to humiliate (I believe I speak with some authority for the authors' motives, since I was one of them).

Scholars -- writers generally -- use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their alliances, they bring work to the attention of their reader, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against potential allegations of plagiarism.

The clearest difference between the way undergraduate students, writing essays, cite and quote and the way scholars do it in public is this: typically, the scholars are achieving something positive; the students are avoiding something negative. (my italics)

I think that Hunt has hit exactly the right note.

When you cite the works of others, you are strengthening your own argument because you are making them (and their allies) into your allies, and people who challenge what you say have to take on this entire army. When you cite reputable sources or credible authorities for facts or ideas, you become more credible because you are no longer alone and thus not easily dismissed, even if you personally are not famous or a recognized authority.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: It's now Daylight Saving Time. Do you know where your spiritual plane is?

It seems like idiotic statements attributing natural events to supernatural causes are not restricted to Christian radical clerics like Pat Robertson. Some Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy are challenging him for the title of Religious Doofus.

Since Sri Lanka sits very close to the equator, the length of the day is the same all year round, not requiring the 'spring-forward-fall-back' biannual adjusting of the US. Sri Lankan time used to be 5.5 hours ahead of Universal Time (UT) but in 1996 the government made a one-time shift it to 6.5 hours in order to have sunset arrive later and save energy. But the influential Buddhist clergy were not happy with the change. As a compromise, the clocks were then again adjusted to make it just 6.0 ahead of UT as a compromise. Now the government is thinking of going back to the original 5.5. hours.

Some of the country's Buddhist clergy are rejoicing at the prospect of a change because they say Sri Lanka's "old" time fitted better with their rituals.

They believe a decade living in the "wrong" time has upset the country's natural order with terrible effect.

The Venerable Gnanawimala says the change moved the country to a spiritual plane 500 miles east of where it should be.

"After this change I feel that many troubles have been caused to Sri Lanka. Tsunamis and other natural disasters have been taking place," he says.

This is what happens when you mix religion and the state. You now have to worry about what your actions are doing to the longitudinal coordinates of your nation's spiritual plane.


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I like that argument much better than the moral argument. I wish someone would have explained it that clearly when I was in high school.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on April 5, 2006 09:10 AM

Have you ever seen a film called Shattered Glass? It is about Stephen Glass, a journalist with "The New Republic" who concocted a majority of his stories.

Posted by Chris on April 5, 2006 10:05 AM

Yes, I saw Shattered Glass. It was a good film.

Wholesale fabrication of stuff raises a whole different range of problems, unless you are a fiction writer. But I think that motivations that drive people to fabricate are not that different from those that make them plagiarize.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 5, 2006 10:22 AM

Excellent arguments as usual. I think also that when we write nonfiction, we are building on the information we take in from a variety of sources, whether they be other writers or our own experiential knowledge. In constructing our document, we use all of these sources as building blocks.

When we cite these blocks of knowledge, we give our readers a window into the process. As is true of opensource software, they now also have the material they need to properly examine our arguments in context, as well as the sources to pursue further research on their own.

When someone neglects to include their sources, we readers are left stumbling about having to recreate the research from scratch before we can adequately comment or criticize.

There is a blogger on campus who rarely includes sources and I find it incredibly frustrating. Of course it also often keeps me (and others) from posting dissenting opinions (lack of research time) so perhaps that is why he does it!

Regarding the postscript:
I believe my spiritual plane is parked on the tarmac of Heathrow—it's forever traveling without corporeal me.

But even if we could accept the supernatural, I would presume that it followed some group of laws similar to those governing the natural world. If that is so, then the name we give to a certain time, whether it be 5:30 or 6:00 should be irrelevant. These numbers are mere monikers we've created as tools to measure our passage through time. If a ritual must be done at sunset or some other significant point in the day, it shouldn't matter what time we call it.

Posted by cool on April 5, 2006 02:07 PM

The plagiarism link was really thought provoking. Thanks for posting it. I was kind of irritated by the way the original author declined to suggest more ecologically-valid alternatives for undergrad assessment, but I think I've figured out why he doesn't, and why it wouldn't matter if he did.

I think that in making the comparison that you highlight here, the author is eliding something important. It's not just that the point of a research paper in college is different from the point of an article that you're trying to publish. It's that the point of academia itself is very different from the point of collegiate and precollegiate education. Given that, I don't see why we should expect the motivations of teachers or students to be the same in the two kinds of environments, or design evaluations with "real academia" in mind. I think fundamentally, at some level, education has to be top-down and credential-focused; top-down because there are some things you can't easily learn through self-discovery, and the teachers simply know more (er, we hope ;) ); and credential-focused because society requires some basic level of shared knowledge among its members, and you can't gamble that this will inspire everyone the way "I'd like to build a deck" will inspire some, so you need to provide some incentive. We could argue about the (maturational? educational?) point at which one should start to make the transition, of course.

I've never loved grades, myself, but I think until someone has a better answer for the general case, arguments like his are weak in the end. (I know that in specific cases, less traditional ways of evaluation can work, but the conditions required for it are ... not so different from what you've got in grad school, I think, in terms of student motivation and ability and available resources, and so I don't think the counterevidence detracts from my point.)

Still, it was an interesting link and worth thinking about.

Posted by Erin on April 5, 2006 05:50 PM


Your comment about the arbitrariness of time is absolutely right but then you are a rational person thinking logically! The trouble with the monk is that he has got used to thinking of clock readings as having some cosmic significance.

It may be worse in places like Sri Lanka where the clocks were never fiddled with and people may have come to see "6:00pm" as something more than an arbitrary label. In the US where people have been changing clocks twice a year, and you had to change your watch when you crossed into a different time zone, people probably would not attach much significance to it, although they would share the monk's irrationality on other topics.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 6, 2006 10:04 AM


The grading issue is very comlicated. I think the author was not really trying to address the major issues you raise but showiing how the moralistic attitude towards cheating to get good grades is similar to the attitude taken towards plagiarism.

"[Students are] learning exactly the same thing, with a different spin, when we tell them that plagiarism is a moral issue. We're saying that the only reason you might choose not to do it is a moral one. But think about it: if you wanted to build a deck and were taking a class to learn how to do it, your decision not to cheat would not be based on moral considerations."

Posted by Mano Singham on April 6, 2006 10:09 AM


I guess I didn't make my point very well. I do understand the author's point about students' reasons not to plagiarize being moralistic, and agree that this is very different from the rhetorical reasons that academics (usually) don't plagiarize. I guess my point is just that I don't see how else it could be. It seems like the author is arguing that this artificiality is the reason we're stuck with so much plagiarism, and that if we want different results we should change the way students think about it, but how? Student reasoning differs from academic reasoning because the social contexts are inescapably different. I know that's not what he was addressing, but it seems to me that if one wants to take his argument farther, one kind of has to.

Posted by Erin on April 7, 2006 11:00 AM

As a teacher I think cheating is worse than plagiarism; while the former is intentional the latter could happen inadvertently. Just last week I caught two students texting answers to each other.

Posted by marciano guerrero on August 4, 2010 10:30 PM

I think that when writing non-fiction citing other writer's or researcher's works is critical. It will position you as someone who is well-versed in the material and it will allow you to build on the conclusions of others to further the conversation.

In essence you are doing as Newton said, "standing on the shoulders of giants."

Posted by The First Call Resolution Guy on September 10, 2010 07:23 PM

Plagiarism is disgraceful in my opinion.

How can you morally steal someone's work and call it your own, especially if you are financially benefiting from it.

Not the way I would do it, but to each his own, and eventually they get caught.

Posted by Thomas on January 24, 2011 07:24 PM

Just for clarity, I'm completely against taking another person's text word for word and passing it off as your own.

But I do notice that I frequently use ideas that didn't originate with me, and more often than not I don't know who spoke them first (sometimes this can be fixed with a Google search... sometimes not). When I can find references or quote someone directly, I do... I completely agree that it strengthens your position as an author... it lends a certain legitimacy to your writing.

And the appropriateness of frequent citations also depends on your audience.

As for your comments about Buddhists and spiritual beliefs... I can't say I completely agree... but to each their own.

keep smiling,


Posted by Benjamin@Meditation Techniques on February 7, 2011 08:39 PM

apart from the moral aspect, i am worried about the education. this is a worry for all adults with children. the fact that plagurism and the internet kind of go hand in hand makes me think that maybe my children wont be getting the education that they might have if the information wasnt so readily available, and so easy to copy/paste...

Posted by ben on July 11, 2011 11:16 AM