Plagiarism is a concept best understood through leakology. This pervasive cultural practice perversely lurks somewhere between seduction and sin, narcissism and insecurity, voyeurism and exhibitionism. Although it is tempting to categorize the plagiarists’ actions as theft, their flagrant disregard for the definition of information as property undermines the Western logic of crime and punishment. In 1902, William Dean Howells analyzes the peculiar nature of plagiarism in his brief essay, “The Psychology of Plagiarism,” by focusing readers’ attention on humans’ inability to both own information or its flows. For this American literary critic, the terms crime and theft should not apply to plagiarism because the action “seems to deprave no more than it dishonors” (276). He elaborates on the ways in which plagiarism, an act of concealment, is inextricably linked to subsequent acts of discovery.
If you take a man’s hat or coat out of his hall, you may pawn it before the police overtake you; if you take his horse out of his stable, you may ride it away beyond pursuit and sell it; if you take his purse out of his pocket, you may pass it to a pal in the crowd, and easily prove your innocence. But if you take his sermon, or his essay, or even his apposite reflection, you cannot escape discovery. The world is full of idle people reading books, and they are only too glad to act as detectives; they please their miserable vanity by showing their alertness, and are proud to hear witness against you in the court of parallel columns. You have no safety in the obscurity of the author from whom you take your own; there is always that most terrible reader, the reader of one book, who knows that very author, and will the more indecently hasten to bring you to the bar because he knows no other, and wishes to display his erudition. A man may escape for centuries and yet be found out. (Howells 276)
Howells’ precise delineation between the ways in which physical properties evade detection better than symbolic exchanges is epistemologically relevant for several reasons.
In particular, a physical property disappears in the rivers of market exchange, fluidly passing from locations and human hands with no regard of the traces that point towards its origins of development and production. While we may seek to possess a material good, it’s value lies in its use—or the desirability of its acquisition for use. On the other hand, the use of information itself, as a material good (let’s say a book of any kind), seems to lie in its rhetorical currency—does it enable consumers to exercise judgment, or expand their choices/range of decision-making? The fact that plagiarism generates deliberation about character illustrates that the practice actually invents more information than it ever “stole.” When a plagiarist attempts to “pass” information as one’s own, we may be tempted to equate this as “concealing,” but in reality this is an act of “revealing.” Indeed, the plagiarist’s only “crime” is foolishness, if they actually believe they won’t get caught. However, as part of a public that regularly spends it’s time and attention zealously persecuting ‘bad characters,’ the plagiarist actually exposes the perversity of property and ownership underlying logics of crime and punishment.
What is actually ‘taken’ from an author? In rare cases, some plagiarist may temporarily receive fame and admiration, but as Howells’ realized over a century ago, they will inevitably be discovered. In the contemporary dataquake, there are both numerous incentives to ‘fraudulate,’ as well as reveal fraud. Regardless of whether a person is tempted to take some bytes out of the tsunamis of information saturating and absorbing them in the torrential seas, or they are relentlessly searching for plagiarism, both the plagiarist and her persecutors are searching for a tear in the ocean. Their motivation is an emotional one—they are compelled to leak! The plagiarist must reckon with a thirsty public. Plenty seek out plagiarism to justify their own ‘good character,’ through the act of finding out ‘the cheater,’ and passing off their discovery as a ‘novel’ contribution to human thought production. Nevertheless, it is the plagiarist that created that opportunity for participating in this psychosexual drama, and leaking/leaks play a central role in narratives emerging from these agents.
Who gets to be an author in our century, where writers are battling for the rewards of virality, pooling efforts in collaborative platforms and trying to be sharks in the data hydrosphere? How does plagiarism play a role in the information warfare that stimulates surveillance economies of race and criminality, the police state and closed-system citizenry? My next post will investigate a much ignored topic in discourses of plagiarism–its relationship to race. I will draw on my experiences working at an HBCU for women to discuss why the academic integrity takes on an even greater significance when the students, to which it applies, may be ripe for accusations of fraud by virtue of expressing any eloquence that they claim ‘belongs to them.’ Indeed, the politics of leaking and authoring are richer when we consider black female bodies producing content. Meanwhile, we should pay attention to Howells’ insights about the curious character of plagiarism and the leaky world, in which it lies.