It’s All Been Done Before: On Plagiarism

The director of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence, has resigned after revelations that he plagiarized multiple articles that he “wrote” for the Toronto Star.

This gave me reason to consider the subject of plagiarism, and how my thoughts on the issue have developed as I’ve aged.

I first became aware of the concept of plagiarism as a student in the Toronto District School Board system, or rather, its forerunner, the Toronto Board of Education.  As a high school student, I initially saw plagiarism as a simple issue involving cheating and morality.  Plagiarism is a form of cheating, and cheating is wrong; children should learn honesty.

Admittedly, I was never really tempted to plagiarise a school essay, probably because I liked writing too much.  If anything, I used to have the opposite problem, in that I often found it difficult, as a student, to find room in which to incorporate the minimal number of sources required by my teachers or professors.  I was excited by my own ideas, and sources were annoyances which got in the way and clogged up the flow of my writing.

In my first two years of university, it would not be uncommon for me to hit the target word count before being able to cite even half the number of required sources.  I had to work at learning how to economize with words, which meant learning how to orient my writing around the source material, rather than around my own ideas.  But eventually, I did learn this skill, and it’s had a profound impact on the way I write history as an adult.

What helped me was the realization that I’d rather read something that’s good and interesting than something that’s making an original or profound point.  I don’t necessarily want to read original opinions or analysis; often, I just want facts.  In books, I tend to gravitate to the sections where the author has assembled their primary source material and quotes from a variety of other sources.  The other sections just seem like fluff, and I want to get to the substance.  In fact, many of my favourite history books are ones in which the writers seem to step back and allow me, the reader, to think that I’m doing all the analysis myself.  (Of course this is an illusion, because these writers have carefully chosen sources which fit within a certain perspective, and have also provided the reader with necessary context.)

Academic writing tends to put a lot of emphasis on analysis and original ideas, but the goal of popular history is simply to convey information in an engaging fashion.  In terms of popular history, I think that if the source material is genuinely interesting, there’s nothing wrong with just filling up the copy with properly sourced statements and attributed quotations.  Yes, it can seem aimless or thin, but when the audience doesn’t already know the story, an interesting narrative is plenty.

The thing is, it’s completely legitimate to create a piece by cutting and pasting all the best bits from other people’s work, provided that you put these sections in quotations marks and attribute them to their creators.  Chris Spence could have re-framed his articles by saying “here is an interesting collection of thoughts on this subject from a variety of other people.”  He’d already done the hard work by finding and compiling all these great quotations.  All he needed to do was curate these great passages by explaining who had said them, then adding some original words to link them together and provide context.

This is, in fact, largely what I do as a popular historian.  I don’t have a lot of the city’s history locked away in my head, and I can’t just dash off a piece based on something I already know.  Every piece I write starts with a lengthy research phase, which involves looking for books and articles on the subject I’ve chosen.  My finished product invariably includes a lot of quotations from the work of others, which I attribute accordingly.

A simple example is a piece I wrote for Torontoist on the last night of legal alcohol sale in the Junction before the passing of a temperance by-law.  The only primary sources I know of which cover this event are the newspaper accounts.  After reading them, I selected and quoted from my favourite passages which formed the basic structure of my piece.  The finished article repeatedly notes the source material, allowing for the possibility that the reported facts could have been wrong, or that the journalists of 1904 might have been having some fun at truth’s expense.  My job as a historian was to assemble this material, arrange it coherently, and to supplement it with context, such as explaining the issues with prohibition in Ontario at the time, outlining local geography, and drawing on what others had said about the overall history of the area and subject matter.  I made a lot of editorial decisions, but most of the best phrases come from the unidentified Toronto journalists of 1904.

Writing around the source material is a different kind of writing from the manic, passionate essays I wrote when I first entered university.  There’s certainly a place for this other style of writing, which stems from opinion and personal experience.  When someone is resorting to plagiarism, though, it’s a good indication that they probably aren’t that into this kind of personal writing, and they probably shouldn’t be forcing themselves to do it.

I really believe that Chris Spence would have been fine if he simply collected quotations from relevant articles, attributed them, and published these collages of other people’s insight as what they were.  If Spence thought that somebody else had already said something better than he ever could, it would have been fine for him to have said “I really agree with this other person’s comment or opinion.”  Spence’s article about the value of school sports has valid points in it that are worth reading, regardless of whether the points originated in the head of Chris Spence or in the heads of several other people.  In fact, on most subjects, I’d really like to read a collection of some of the best points made by a variety of people, rather than something that just contains one man’s opinion.

Of course, a glaring problem with the Spence debacle is that the head of a school board should be more aware than anyone about the problems with plagiarism, given that the school board itself tends to be harsh on students who plagiarise.

It’s not just that the school board preaches against plagiarism, though, or that plagiarism is simply dishonest.  A fundamental part of my formal education involved reading things written by other people, and learning how to interpret and write about them.  This is, I think, a core aspect of education.  The lesson from Chris Spence’s resignation shouldn’t be that it’s wrong to use other people’s ideas, but that it’s wrong to use other people’s ideas without crediting them.  Or, more properly, that it’s right to attribute other people’s ideas to their original sources, because reading other people’s work, manipulating it, and incorporating their ideas into our own thoughts, is how we learn.  It’s what learning is.  Kids go to school to learn how to do this.

Plagiarism isn’t just about dishonesty.  And it’s not just about being lazy, because it’s really easy to put quotation marks around something and say that it’s actually somebody else’s phrase, experience, or idea.  This is what baffles me about plagiarism.  It doesn’t seem to save much time or reduce the workload.  The only reason I can think of why somebody would repeatedly and colossally plagiarise is that they don’t realize that it’s okay to quote somebody’s work if you just say that it’s somebody else’s work and that you’re quoting it because it’s worth repeating in a new context or worth sharing with a different audience.  A serial plagiarist must be oblivious to just how close their cut-and-paste job is to legitimate writing.  

Chris Spence’s plagiarism suggests that he doesn’t understand that education is about learning how to consider and manipulate the words of other people (with a few simple rules), which makes me wonder just what he thinks education and learning actually are, and also how he was able to become the director of the TDSB in the first place.  Spence was the head of an organization whose mandate is to teach children how to think and how to consider the ideas of others, yet he doesn’t seem to have these skills himself.