Generation Plagiarism

In some ways, it’s no surprise that Helene Hegemann, whose first novel was just chosen as a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair prize for fiction despite serious concerns about plagiarism, is only 17-years-old.

While many more mature fiction writers aspire to receive the widespread acclaim that has characterized Hegemann’s entrance to the literary world, a shift in generational attitudes and practices around plagiarism are what make it less surprising that the story revolves around such a young woman.

Most mature fiction writers have not stolen entire pages of prose from other authors and then defended their action.

The New York Times reports that Hegemann sees herself as part of “a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new.”

Plagiarism is nothing new, and it may be that as more and more information becomes readily accessible to more people via the Internet, we are simply able to identify plagiarism that would have gone unnoticed in years past.

I think something else is going on — we are the generation of “copy-paste.” We write papers with our sources open in neighboring windows on the same laptop screen, and we have access to more of other peoples’ ideas than ever before — without even getting off the sofa.

In a 300-level political science class, we spent nearly an entire day of lecture reviewing how to effectively write without any risk of being accused of plagiarism.

No professor would spend that amount of time nailing home what should be a completely assumed skill, unless her students had shown a desperate need for a review.

It’s tempting to say new technology has created a blurry zone around what used to be a more clear-cut line defining plagiarism. Helene Hegemann certainly seems to think so.

But technology hasn’t changed one relatively non-controversial societally held moral: stealing the words and ideas of others is wrong and cannot be permitted.

The Leipzig Book Fair should immediately rescind its consideration of Ms. Hegemann’s novel, as the literary community should be a leader in condemning plagiarism. Professors around this University should crack down on cases of academic dishonesty.

My guess is that if a professor or teaching assistant actually gave the big old F every time they wondered about a very familiar paragraph in a paper, our copy-paste generation would quickly learn how to write originally and cite appropriately.

Technology, in fact, can be the key to encouraging authentic composition. Easy access to information makes it possible to verify whether that familiar passage is indeed some other scholar’s work, or a case of déjà vu.

Web resources make citations simple, and where all else fails, inspires exactly the kind of fear that forces students to interact with their sources appropriately.

Helene Hegemann’s defense is indicative of a real problem that must be addressed at every level of the writing community.

In our own University classrooms, ambiguity should not be tolerated, and plagiarism should be regarded for what it is — not, as Hegemann suggests “mixing,” but theft, pure and simple.


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