TCS Daily

Cut-and-Paste Culture

By Lauren Weiner - May 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Our culture of copying is getting bad. Teachers complain that students crib from the Internet while thinking they're doing legitimate class work. We hear every other day about professional historians, jurists, columnists, reporters, and other ink-stained wretches, who got caught dipping their quills into other people's ink wells and calling the results their own.

The case of Kaavya Viswanathan is an eye-opener. The Harvard undergrad was exposed by the Harvard Crimson as having plagiarized passages of her hit novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, published by Little, Brown. What shocked me was that the young woman became a literary sensation not just with a P.R. firm or an agent, but with the use of something called a "book packager." Who knew? It's especially embarrassing for me to be unaware of this because I write book reviews for newspapers and journals.

What I now know is that these "book packagers" share the author's advance money and, the Washington Post reports, "some of the creative oversight that would usually be the publisher's." Creative oversight by the publisher -- that is not unheard of. Legendary editors assisted certain American writers -- or so the literary gossip alleged -- sometimes nearly to the point of co-authorship. Thomas Wolfe famously relied on Max Perkins, of Scribner's, to rein in his wild prose.

Apparently the publishers have now outsourced. Middlemen have sprung up, and it seems they've broken new ground in fakery. Surely Viswanathan's helpers, from a firm called Alloy Entertainment, are not only a crutch for the writer but worsen the culture of copying in which we live. Think about it. That's a pretty brazen name, Alloy Entertainment. Get it? Alloy, a metal mixed with a more valuable metal. No wonder the client assumed that she could take a little Megan McCafferty, a little Salman Rushdie, a touch of this one and a touch of that one, and meld it all into something she considered original.

The ironic thing is that her novel is about the formulas and the stratagems used by middle-class strivers to gain the edge, get into Harvard, put one up on the success score board.

My significant other is a professor, so I hear at home about the eroding academic integrity of these sons and daughters of the middle- and upper-middle class. One plagiarist she told me about got some paragraphs from an obliging classmate but was so exhausted from pulling an all-nighter that he accidentally hit cut-and-paste when he didn't mean to, sticking the borrowed words into more than one place in his bogus paper. Dead giveaway.

An honor counsel of fellow students dealt harshly with him. That's the bright spot: that some young people do retain a sense of right and wrong in these matters. Harvard's Viswanathan has also come a cropper, and much more publicly than the sleepy cheater I heard about. Will she have learned her lesson?

To be sure, creations of the mind are often influenced by past creations. Inspiration can be a kind of stealing, and that is common in art, literature, and music.

That may be the real lesson: Art that is worthy uses what came before, but transmutes it. It doesn't cede control to slick experts -- a practice we could call the commercial equivalent of leaning on the cut-and-paste button on the computer keyboard.

The author is a TCS contributing writer living in Baltimore.



Tough break kiddo
Sounds like she got caught in the confluence of our nation's increasingly lax educational standards, the glorification of fame, and the desire for instant gratification.

Do a report on
Usually classroom assignments are of the form do a report on something. The teachers exepect research to come from the library. Informative it may be, but if it exists in the library, it's someone else's work. Teachers are really asking students to reword what someone else has already done. Maybe the assignments should stress original research instead. Interviewing people. Conducting experiments. That kind of thing.

Gifts of Preceding Ages
Progress is often the result of building upon earlier work, especially in the Sciences. So it's fundamentally important for students to learn to think AND to research. Thus it has never been more important to teach how to properly cite references -- to give credit where credit is due.

"We are as dwarfs mounted on the shoulders of giants, so that we are able to see more and further than they; but this is not on account of any keenness of sight on our part or height of our bodies, but because we are lifted up upon those giant forms. Our age enjoys the gifts of preceding ages, and we know more, not because we excel in talent, but because we use the products of others who have gone before."

-- Bernard of Chartres, circa 1140

Splendidissima lumina Galliarum. Metal. Migne 199. 900.

No, it sounds like she had the same attitude that many of my students have: that plagiarism isn't all that big a deal. It is aided and abetted by postmodernism, which proclaims that there is nothing original anyway, that everything is really just a copy of a copy. If that is the case, then what is the big deal if we make more copies, without attribution? After all, it's all been done, so why bother to do the work to make it sound original?

I tell my students that plagiarism is theft, lying, and cheating -- it is three sins in one -- but I still manage to have at least one student a year trying to get away with copying directly from the internet (and which takes me a minute or two to find). Then when they are caught, the student does not seem to understand why what they did is wrong. In 20-30 years, these same students will be arrested in some kind of Enron-like scandal, and they will be just as incredulous then as now.

Worse, the colleges and universities capitulate to the cheaters, and refuse to punish them. THey just allow the students to write the paper over -- a real joke, since they didn't write the paper in the first place. Once upon a time, you could throw them out of the university for plagiarism. Now you can't even fail them for that paper.

Open Letter to the Editor of TCS
Why did you accept this essay, but refused to accept my essay on a similar subject? I keep seeing this sort of thing here: I have an idea for an essay, and then a month or so later, one of your regulars has an essay on a similar topic.

Many of the essays here at TCS are increasingly becoming contentless, superficial tripe (not this essay -- though the author does not deal with the issue in any really substantive way), and I'm convinced it is because it is only ever the same people saying the same things over and over. Of course, perhaps that is why you didn't want to publish my essay on contentless education?

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