Simply amazed, I do not really know what to say.
Plagiarism as a mode of learning
Plagiarism continues unabated in our academic community, with the latest example being would-be professors at Lampung State University who are alleged to have practiced textual borrowings by copying verbatim the works of others without recognition of authorship.
The mushrooming of “copying-without-attributing-practices” in the country’s academia is symptomatic of the cult of scholarly naiveté among our academics.
Yet, rather than seeking astute solutions to fathom why plagiarism among Indonesian scholars and students prevails, academic institutions prefer simply to impose sanctions ranging from threats, warnings, admonitions and even expulsions.
What is more, a special team in the Education and Culture Ministry has been assigned to hunt down every scholarly work submitted by those being promoted to professorship.
Plagiarism, as has been commonly understood here, is a serious academic crime of passing off others’ scholarly work as one’s own. It is regarded as a serious academic misrepresentation, which is against the code of ethics of the academic profession.
We are, however, aware that this much-held conception of plagiarism is shaped very much by Western and European concepts of textual practices. It is therefore full of Anglo-American biases and Euro-centricity.
Imposing the above view as the world’s standard of textual practices and the measure against which academic punishments should be meted out to plagiarists certainly nullifies and undermines the complexities of textual practices unique to one’s cultures, educational, ideological and rhetorical traditions.
Writers hailing from diverse cultures and rhetorical traditions perceive textual borrowing differently. For example, in a culture that reveres established knowledge as something sacrosanct, incontestable, infallible and transcendental, quoting precisely the original sources is highly recommended in deference to this knowledge. Saying it using other words is considered insolent and disrespectful.
Similarly, in some rhetorical traditions, originality is seen as the amalgamation and reconstruction of the voices of others. Citing the words of wisdom, proverbs and adages, for instance, and infusing them in one’s writing adds to the aesthetic value and power of writing.
Also, in a pedagogical practice where a culture of obedience is inculcated at early learning stages, memorizing and imitating the words of those who are considered knowledgeable, authoritative, omniscient and well-read is a must. Students are discouraged from using their own words to paraphrase and contextualize these words, for they are considered unequal in terms of authoritativeness in the propagation of knowledge.
Reorienting the concept of textual borrowing in light of these factors can help us gain a rich, diverse perspective — a perspective which can question, obfuscate and even impugn the legitimacy of the existing definition of plagiarism imposed on all contexts of literary practice, and which will eventually obscure the notion of plagiarism per se.
We can, for instance, call into question the basic philosophically-held tenets in academic writing practices such as who has the right to exercise authority in judging one’s writing as an instance of plagiarism and other’s writings as original, hence not plagiaristic scholarly works? Furthermore what is actually the limit of originality?
Rather than answer these inquiries in the light of Western perceptions of plagiarism, understanding writers’ historical and sociocultural specificities can help provide valuable insights into different knowledge-making practices via textual borrowing.
Australian applied linguist Alastair Pennycook (1996) shows us that the above perspective of plagiarism leads not only to inconsistencies and confusion, but also hypocrisy. He demonstrates the work of Western scholars that can be classified as plagiarism provided that this notion can be unambiguously defined. He further argues that Western scholars’ vehement promotion of “correct” textual practices is always filled with tensions and inconsistencies.
Textual borrowing is a practice predominant in academic writing. Yet, it is important to highlight that not many students and not even many scholars are familiar with the conventions of academic writing, especially with textual borrowing a la Western style. Most of them are devoid of the intellectual wherewithal to understand the conventions. As such, the occurrence of plagiarism shouldn’t be interpreted simply as ignorance of academic conventions.
This line of argument doesn’t necessarily imply that they suffer from cognitive deficiencies or are unable to accurately apply the conventions in practice.
Given the complexities, inconsistencies and ambiguities of the Western notion of plagiarism, blatantly imposing academic sanctions, especially on both novice student writers and researchers, would be pedagogically unhealthy.
To conclude, taking into account the above convoluted factors, we can say that plagiarism shouldn’t be condemned simply as a crime or a serious academic violation, but instead should be viewed as a mode of learning.
The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University. He is also chief-editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.