Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

On plagiarism

I'm not a fan of copyright. Plagiarism is like a worse form of copyright in terms of when infringement is activated, and its particular characteristics are where things could head if the movement toward less copyright fails. Right now plagiarism only has teeth because of its potential to ruin academic careers--if it had penalties similar to copyright infringement, this world would suck a lot. Am I against plagiarism penalties? "Don't spread the plague", as it were? No. I don't think plagiarism is entirely evil and schools who are active against it generally do better than otherwise. I think the the US school system's attitudes towards plagiarism need to change, but the status quo is better than eliminating caring about plagiarism altogether. I think in India much of the incompetence associated with their university graduates can be attributed to the rampant plagiarism of the students who feel like it's okay and disinterested reactions of the professors, as well as a cultural issue of being superior to your peers (some of whom may be in a higher caste!) in terms of productive work and accomplishment.

I had one incident in my academic history, in high school, where the teacher called my home and talked to my mom, who relayed the teacher's desire for me to come in to discuss a one-page paper she claimed I plagiarized. I was disturbed because I had not intentionally plagiarized, and I think the teacher knew that, so she cleared up for me what she interpreted as plagiarism so that I could avoid it and redo the assignment. I honestly don't remember the details of the assignment, I think it was something about researching some instrument and explaining very basic properties of how they worked, what sound waves they generated, and so on. I was uninterested in the original paper and the subject it was supposed to be about, but I wrote it up. I went to Wikipedia, listed it as my only source, read the article and a couple related articles, then regurgitated the important points in my own words. Is this not research? Apparently not. This bugged me and still bugs me to this day, so much so that when I try and write any "research" paper where plagiarism could be an issue, I write about what I already know, and write it "from memory" as it were, then hunt down references afterwards. I have a broad knowledge base compared to my peers so generally this works out, assignments are done quickly, and I can get back to real research and thought that doesn't require me to write a paper listing every idea that's not mine. I have no original ideas, after all. Everything I've created is just a remix. (Sometimes I'm not even aware of equivalent ideas, i.e. I :came up" with them "independently", but I think that speaks to the easiness with which such an idea can be formed by remixing and extrapolating from common knowledge.)

Research papers are funny things. In English, essays are really legal arguments where you argue opinions. They have utility in letting students exercise their creativity in a structured way, form their own opinions, argue for their own opinions and against others or responses, and so on. Research papers (at the 10th grade level at least) have less direct utility to the student. Really they're just a lazy way for the teacher to say "show me you spent some time learning about this thing or something of your choice." Real academic papers with abstracts and such have high utility in their content, but they even have some utility in the references list. The list isn't so much useful in showing some professor or journal editor that the author knows he didn't rediscover knowledge that's been around for decades or even hundreds of years, or to show the author has read about the subject, or to show the author knows how to paraphrase and quote correctly, but their usefulness is in adding a paper trail of important works within the subject for newcomers to follow and learn from if they don't understand your paper or want to learn what you learned that motivated you discovering, researching, or building whatever the content of your paper is about.

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