Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Plagiarism, or Borrowing Harper’s face without his permission

Plagiarism (from Latin plagiarius, man-stealer): the appropriation of an author’s language, thoughts, ideas, and expressions.

By that definition, Margaret Sutherland’s portrait of Stephen Harper in the nude is plagiarism. She has stolen Harper`s facial expression, his Cheshire-cat grin. I for one am willing to forgive her, but why not go all the way and borrow faces for the headless entourage surrounding Harper in the painting? http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Canada/20120518/prime-minister-harper-nude-120518/

One plagiarist who has my outright admiration is Quentin Rowan, author of Assassin of Secrets. He ripped off and reassembled dozens of passages from famous crime writers (complete list on Ed`s rants: http://www.edrants.com/q-r-markham-plagiarist/). That takes dedication. If Rowan is so knowledgeable about crime writing, perhaps he should go for a PhD in literature. No, wait. Academics can be really picky about copying other people’s work. Hungarian president Pal Smitt was divested of her 1992 PhD because of plagiarism and had to resign from office.

Of course there are PhDs and there are phds. When Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto applied for university status, it had to show that a certain percentage of its faculty had PhDs. That was a problem until a few enterprising profs went on an exchange programme to Hungary and obtained a “lesser doctorate” at Miskolc University:
In the seventies, Rochdale College, a hippie community, made it even easier: you could get a PhD for $ 100, no questions asked: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/society/youth/hippie-society-the-youth-rebellion/rochdale-college-organized-anarchy.html

Until recently it took a scholar to spot sophisticated plagiarisms, but today there’s an app for that. In fact, Viper Anti-Plagiarism Scanner wants you to scan your own stuff, in case you plagiarized subconsciously or suffer from memory loss. It’s also useful if you are student in the habit of buying essays and want to know if those sleazebags you hired are plagiarizers.

Some institutions are more understanding than others. In 2001 I taught for a term at BYU. One of my students handed in an essay that was so obviously plagiarized that I could spot it without software. My inclination was to fail him, but my course happened to be the last one the student needed to graduate, and the dean fell for his crocodile tears. As far as I know, the fellow was awarded his degree.

And then there is self-plagiarism. I came across it at a country fair last weekend. One artist displayed digital prints of his paintings. He had added a few daubs of oil paint to the prints to give them more profile, and, voila, he had multiple original paintings. So, to all you starving artists out there: You, too, could make a decent living if you weren’t so prissy about the definition of “original”.

Let’s hear your favourite plagiarism story.

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  1. Interesting. Must check out the anti-plagiarism site.
    When one reads as much as I do, unconsciously ideas and maybe even sentences do creep into one's mind and STAY there, only to surface months, maybe years later.

  2. Have to check out the Rochdale College program!

    1. Apparently the news of the Rochdale sale of degrees made headlines worldwide. My father read about it in Vienna. I had just obtained a doctorate from the University of Toronto. My father, who had a Grade Four education and couldn’t see why anyone (especially a woman) would waste time in university, hopefully asked me whether I had bought my degree from Rochdale. The fact that I had not, confirmed him in his opinion that I was crazy.