Shades of grey?
It is tempting to think of plagiarism in terms of black-and-white, either a writer has committed plagiarism – or s/he hasn’t.
There are plenty of grey areas, of course, especially when considering paraphrases or summaries, or the grey areas of common knowledge or of self-plagiarism (duplication of work). But by and large, plagiarism is clear-cut: a piece of work which appears to be the work of the present writer but which lack the indicators that show that this is the words, work or ideas of somebody else, that is plagiarism. Probably. Possibly.
Issues such as intent and extent might be of consideration when determining the consequences, but those are other issues, it is plagiarism or it isn’t. Cases in which plagiarism is suspected but cannot be proven will (usually, in education situations) be given the benefit of the doubt: it isn’t plagiarism. It is clear-cut, black-and-white.
Black-and-white. If the signals are not there, signals that indicate that these are someone else’s exact words, or the citation which indicates that these are someone else’s words or ideas, and it can be shown that the words or ideas originated elsewhere, it’s plagiarism.
Black-and-white (and shades of grey). It is or it isn’t.
I often use Jude Carroll’s “Where do you draw the line?” activity* in workshops (with permission, of course). Carroll gives us six situations, six descriptions of work starting with no attribution or signal or bibliographical reference, and then increasingly more information is included in each scenario. Example 1 is clearly plagiarism, example 6 is clearly good practice, and, as this is a continuum, we can draw a line: that example would be considered as plagiarism, the next example is not plagiarism. Where do we draw the line?
This is a useful activity. I have often found that, even though plagiarism is a matter of black and white, teachers often draw that line in different places. Some draw their line too low, and would accept work which other teachers would rate as plagiarism – and, sometimes, some draw the line too high, and would refuse work which most would rate as acceptable. Students too. We all know what plagiarism is – except that we don’t all agree. More grey than black-and-white?
Definitions are not always clear either, and the terms used to describe plagiarism or to explain good practice are frequently confused and confusing. Examples are often inconsistent and advice given is frequently wrong. Worst might be those bodies which give examples and state, clearly, categorically and mistakenly, that this is the only way to cite and reference, and that anything else is unacceptable. The SQA muddle which I highlighted recently is a case in point.
The worst of that SQA mess was the guide for Advanced Higher Chemistry which states Continue reading