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When is it plagiarism?

Articles in this archive:

British Student Says University Was Negligent for Not Stopping His Plagiarism

Reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 4, 2004

By Aisha Labi

A British student who has plagiarized throughout his undergraduate career is threatening to sue his university for negligence for failing to inform him that such conduct is against the rules.

Michael Gunn, an English major at the University of Kent at Canterbury, could not be reached for comment, but last week he told The Times Higher Education Supplement, "I did plagiarize."

"But I always used the Internet, cutting and pasting stuff and matching it with my own points," he continued. "It's a technique I've used since I started the course. I never dreamt it was a problem."

Mr. Gunn was weeks shy of completing a three-year degree when his plagiarism was discovered and he was told that his grades would be rescinded and his diploma withheld. He is now weighing whether to file what could be a precedent-setting lawsuit -- if it's not thrown out of court for lack of merit. He has told reporters that he wants the university to refund some of the $20,000 in student-loan debt that he has amassed.

University officials have declined to comment on Mr. Gunn's situation, but they point out that students are told of the university's ban on plagiarism when they enroll. Kent's Web site features a discussion of cheating and plagiarism that includes the following warning: "There's the chance of being found 'guilty' even if the crime happened accidentally."

Dan Ashley, a spokesman for the National Union of Students, said he was unaware of any lawsuit similar to the one Mr. Gunn is contemplating. But he acknowledged that the number of university students in Britain who plagiarize may be increasing, in part through ignorance.

"We're completely opposed to plagiarism," he said. "But we do understand that there are much greater pressures on students these days and the Internet has completely changed how students research. The key is that if any student is unsure of what the guidelines are, they need to speak to their lecturer."

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Harvard U. Reportedly Revokes Acceptance of Teen Who Admitted Plagiarism

Reprinted from The New York Times, July 14, 2003

By Martin Van Der Werf

A New Jersey teenager has reportedly lost her place in Harvard University's fall freshman class after admitting that she plagiarized some passages in several guest columns she wrote for a local newspaper.

The Harvard Crimson, the university's student newspaper, reported on Friday that Blair Hornstine, who had gotten public attention for suing her school district earlier this year to be declared the sole valedictorian of her high school class, was told by Harvard that she no longer had a place in the freshman class.

The Crimson article cited a source "involved with the decision." Harvard officials declined to comment on the article, noting that it is against university policy to talk about the status of specific applicants. However, Harvard has a policy, which admitted students must sign, that states that their admission can be revoked "if you engage in behavior that brings into question your honesty, maturity, or moral character."

Ms. Hornstine's family has an unlisted number, and she could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

Ms. Hornstine wrote three articles and two essays for the Courier-Post, a newspaper based in Cherry Hill, N.J., that included information that was not properly attributed, according to an editor's note in the newspaper published on June 3. The unattributed material included language from two U.S. Supreme Court decisions and two proclamations signed by President Bill Clinton. In an accompanying article, Ms. Hornstine wrote that she had taken notes from a variety of sources and pasted them together on her computer.

"I erroneously thought the way I had submitted the articles was appropriate," she wrote. "I was incorrect in ... thinking that news articles didn't require as strict citation scrutiny as most school assignments."

Ms. Hornstine was officially the valedictorian of her graduating class at Moorestown (N.J.) High School, but she did not attend the ceremony. Because Ms. Hornstine suffers from an illness that causes extraordinary fatigue, she was allowed to take a number of classes at home, taught by tutors. School officials reasoned that it gave her an unfair advantage, and moved to name several co-valedictorians. Ms. Hornstine sued, saying the decision discriminated against her on the basis of her disability.

A federal judge agreed, and the case is scheduled to resume next month. Ms. Hornstine is seeking $2.7-million in compensatory and punitive damages.

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Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?

Reprinted from The New York Times, July 12, 2003

By John Pareles

An alert Bob Dylan fan was reading Dr. Junichi Saga's "Confessions of a Yakuza" (Kodansha America, 1991) when some familiar phrases jumped out at him. There were a dozen sentences similar to lines from songs on Mr. Dylan's 2001 album, " 'Love and Theft,' " particularly one called "Floater (Too Much to Ask)."

In the book a father is described as being "like a feudal lord," a phrase Mr. Dylan uses. A character in the book says, "I'm not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded"; Mr. Dylan sings, "I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound." Mr. Dylan has neither confirmed nor denied reading the book or drawing on it; he could not be reached for comment, a Columbia Records spokeswoman said.

The Wall Street Journal reported the probable borrowings on Tuesday as front-page news. After recent uproars over historians and journalists who used other researchers' material without attribution, could it be that the great songwriter was now exposed as one more plagiarist?

Not exactly. Mr. Dylan was not purporting to present original research on the culture of yakuza, the Japanese gangsters. Nor was he setting unbroken stretches of the book to music. The 16 verses of "Floater" include plenty of material that is not in "Confessions of a Yakuza," although the song's subtitle and its last line - "Tears or not, it's too much to ask" - do directly echo the book. Unlike Led Zeppelin, which thinly disguised Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" as "The Lemon Song" and took credit for writing it, Mr. Dylan wasn't singing anyone else's song as his own.

He was simply doing what he has always done: writing songs that are information collages. Allusions and memories, fragments of dialogue and nuggets of tradition have always been part of Mr. Dylan's songs, all stitched together like crazy quilts.

Sometimes Mr. Dylan cites his sources, as he did in "High Water (for Charley Patton)" from the " `Love and Theft' " album. But more often he does not. While die-hard fans happily footnote the songs, more casual listeners pick up the atmosphere, sensing that an archaic turn of phrase or a vaguely familiar line may well come from somewhere else. His lyrics are like magpies' nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown.

Mr. Dylan's music does the same thing, drawing on the blues, Appalachian songs, Tin Pan Alley, rockabilly, gospel, ragtime and more. "Blowin' in the Wind," his breakthrough song, took its melody from an antislavery spiritual, "No More Auction Block," just as Woody Guthrie had drawn on tunes recorded by the Carter Family. They thought of themselves as part of a folk process, dipping into a shared cultural heritage in ways that speak to the moment.

The hoopla over " `Love and Theft' " and "Confessions of a Yakuza" is a symptom of a growing misunderstanding about culture's ownership and evolution, a misunderstanding that has accelerated as humanity's oral tradition migrates to the Internet. Ideas aren't meant to be carved in stone and left inviolate; they're meant to stimulate the next idea and the next.

Because information is now copied and transferred more quickly than ever, a panicky reaction has set in among corporations and some artists who fear a time when they won't be able to make a profit selling their information (in the form of music, images, movies, computer software). As the Internet puts a huge shared cultural heritage within reach, they want to collect fees or block access. Amazingly enough, some musicians want to prevent people from casually listening to their music, much less building new tunes on it.

Companies with large copyright holdings are also hoping to whittle away the safe harbor in copyright law called fair use, which allows limited and ambiguously defined amounts of imitation for education, criticism, parody and other purposes. The companies also want to prevent copyrighted works from entering the public domain, where they can be freely copied and distributed. The Supreme Court recently ruled, in Eldred v. Ashcroft, that individual copyrights could extend for 70 years after the life of the creator, or in the case of a corporation, for 95 years. As a result, Mickey Mouse will be kept out of the public domain - that shared cultural heritage - until 2024.

The absolutely original artist is an extremely rare and possibly imaginary creature, living in some isolated habitat where no previous works or traditions have left any impression. Like virtually every artist, Mr. Dylan carries on a continuing conversation with the past. He's reacting to all that culture and history offer, not pretending they don't exist. Admiration and iconoclasm, argument and extension, emulation and mockery - that's how individual artists and the arts themselves evolve. It's a process that is neatly summed up in Mr. Dylan's album title " `Love and Theft,' " which itself is a quotation from a book on minstrelsy by Eric Lott.

Hip-hop, ever in the vanguard, ran into problems in the mid-1980's when the technique of sampling - copying and adapting a riff, a beat and sometimes a hook or a whole chorus to build a new track - was challenged by copyright holders demanding payment even for snippets. Although sampling was just a technological extension of the age-old process of learning through imitation, producers who use samples now pay up instead of trying to set precedents for fair use.

That might be a good idea; a song that recycles a whole melody (like Puff Daddy's productions) calls for different treatment than a song that borrows a few notes from a horn section, and courts are not the best place for aesthetic distinctions. But in practice, it means fewer samples per track, and it can make complex assemblages prohibitively expensive. Mixes heard only in clubs and bootleg recordings are now the outlets for untrammeled sampling experiments. Yet, samples have extended and revived careers for many musicians when listeners went looking for the sources.

Mr. Dylan has apparently sampled "Confessions of a Yakuza," remixing lines from the book into his own fractured tales of romance and mortality on " `Love and Theft.' " The result, as in many collages and sampled tracks, is a new work that in no way affects the integrity of the existing one and that only draws attention to it.

Dr. Saga has no need to keep his book isolated. He told The Associated Press that he was ecstatic to have inspired such a well-known songwriter. And as news of the Dylan connection surfaced, sales of "Confessions of a Yakuza" jumped. Yesterday it was No. 117 among the best-selling books at Amazon.com, and No. 8 among biographies and memoirs.

Of course, Dr. Saga can't be too possessive about the writing. The book is an oral history, told to him by the yakuza gangster of the title. It's another story that has drifted into humanity's oral tradition. Mr. Dylan's complete lyrics are freely available at www.bobdylan.com. As for the song, if someone asks Mr. Dylan for sampling rights, it would be only fair to grant them.

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Reprinted from The New York Times, July 17, 2003

To the Editor:

Re "Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?," by Jon Pareles (Critic's Notebook, July 12):

The concept of plagiarism in the work of a singer and writer of folk songs as opposed to the printed work of a historian or novelist is shaky at best.

Bob Dylan, who in about 40 years has created a body of work that defines America in his time and is the memory of several generations, has always borrowed from philosophers, poets and songwriters before him; the astute Dylan fan could often tell who he was reading at the time he was writing in the various stages of his career, the Bible often being a prime source.

This is in the nature of the folk music tradition, as people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger attest. This is much ado about nothing.

Holmes, N.Y., July 12, 2003

To the Editor:

Jon Pareles (Critic's Notebook, July 12) appears to exonerate Bob Dylan of plagiarism of Dr. Junichi Saga's 1991 book "Confessions of a Yakuza" since Bob Dylan was neither purporting to present original research nor setting unbroken stretches of the original book to music. This defense simply does not pass the "sniff test."

When someone takes a number of passages, virtually verbatim, from someone else's work (especially a work that is obscure or difficult to trace), fails to give attribution and represents them as original thoughts, that's plagiarism by even the most liberal definition.

Bob Dylan's brilliance aside, for Mr. Pareles to rename it a "collage" doesn't make it any less plagiarism.

Chicago, July 12, 2003

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SUNY-Albany Classicist Loses Chairmanship After Being Accused of Plagiarism

Reprinted from Chronicle of Higher Education, March 8, 2002

By Sharon Walsh

The head of the classics department at the State University of New York at Albany has been stripped of his chairmanship for scholarly misconduct, following allegations that he plagiarized large portions of a book.

Louis W. Roberts, a professor of classics and director of the university's humanistic-studies program, came under public scrutiny when John Monfasani, a professor of history, distributed a memo to colleagues throughout the university in February accusing Mr. Roberts of plagiarism in Latin Texts From the First Century B.C. to the Seventh Century A.D. (Greece and Cyprus Research Center, 2000), a book whose selections Mr. Roberts picked, edited, and translated.

University administrators had been privately informed of the plagiarism allegations more than a year earlier when the book's editor alerted the provost.

In the book, Mr. Roberts presents as his own translation more than 30 pages that were, in fact, summaries written 70 years earlier by John L. La Monte, a well-known medievalist of his time.

"What he claims is his translation is not a translation at all," said Mr. Monfasani. "La Monte made a calendar pertaining to a monastery in Cyprus. He didn't translate it, but just gave summaries. Roberts presents them as translations when, in fact, it's La Monte's summary."

Mr. Roberts, contacted by both e-mail messages and telephone, said through the university spokeswoman that he did not wish to comment on the matter.

High-Profile Cases

The case comes on the heels of several high-profile cases of plagiarism, including those of the well-known historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Each has apologized for separate instances of what they say were inadvertent uses of the words of others.

In the Albany case, the university dealt with the allegations it first received more than a year ago, under the National Science Foundation's academic misconduct guidelines, according to Karen R. Hitchcock, president of the university. Following the allegations, an inquiry was made by the university's provost, Carlos E. Santiago.

"Every university in this country uses the same procedures to deal with academic misconduct," Ms. Hitchcock said. "We have to have a method so we can examine ourselves ... and protect the faculty who come forward, as well as those who are accused."

"Plagiarism is totally unacceptable," Ms. Hitchcock said, noting that she could not talk specifically about Mr. Roberts's case because it is a confidential personnel matter.

She said that she believes Mr. Roberts, who is still a member of the faculty, intends to retire at the end of the academic year.

Faculty members who knew about the allegations claimed that the university did nothing until the matter became public.

An examination of selected pages of Mr. Roberts's book and the La Monte text, "A Register of the Cartulary of the Cathedral of Santa Sophia of Nicosia," which appeared in the 1929-30 volume of the journal Byzantion, shows several passages to be virtually identical.

In another book, published in 2001, Christopher Schabel, an American medievalist who teaches at the University of Cyprus, was the first to point a finger at Mr. Roberts.

"Louis Roberts ... reproduces most of La Monte's article verbatim, including footnotes," Mr. Schabel writes in his book, The Synodicum Nicosiense and Other Documents of the Latin Church of Cyprus, 1196-1373 (Cyprus Research Center, 2001). Mr. Roberts "also reproduces the English summaries of the same documents in La Monte's register, although Roberts does not cite La Monte as his source. Roberts does cite La Monte's article once, but he gives no indication that he is taking over his text verbatim. Most worrisome is the fact that Roberts passes off the plagiarized text as a translation from the Latin, rather than the mere summary that it actually is, and in some cases the original documents are not even Latin."

There were other allegations of plagiarism by Mr. Roberts, but none so egregious as the La Monte example, according to both Mr. Schabel and Mr. Monfasani.

Mr. Schabel notified the editor of Mr. Roberts's book, Paul W. Wallace, of the alleged plagiarism. Mr. Wallace, the editor of a series of books on the history of Cyprus and a professor in the classics department at Albany, confirmed the plagiarism and notified Mr. Santiago on January 18, 2001. Following the exchange of several memos last March, Mr. Wallace says he heard nothing from the administration.

Seeking a 'Direct Response'

"The response of the university was to deal with it internally, as a personnel matter," Mr. Wallace said. "The faculty feels that a more direct response is required. ... Plagiarism is what we regard as the worst academic sin. It undermines the intellectual activities of a university."

Mr. Santiago did not return a reporter's telephone calls. seeking comment.

"He's not really on trial," Mr. Monfasani said of Mr. Roberts. "He's already been exposed. It's the administration that's now on trial."

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