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It's Not Theft, It's Pastiche


College students plagiarize routinely, especially from the Internet.


When a plagiarism scandal erupts in the world of journalism, the accused often trots out an excuse (confusing notes and original words, toggling between computer screens) whose plausibility would shame a toddler, and the gatekeepers of the profession engage in a pro forma bout of soul-searching that somehow leaves journalism looking more ethically enfeebled than empowered. Perhaps the problem is the way we have chosen to define the transgression itself. In My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, anthropologist Susan D. Blum argues: "The concept of plagiarism -- 'improperly' taking someone else's words -- is changing because higher education, the meaning of a 'text,' and notions of the self are changing around it."

In surveys, nearly 70% of college students admit to having taken material from the Internet without properly crediting its source. Ms. Blum comes not to scold these miscreants but to understand their motives. "If more than half of all students plagiarize," she reasons, "then there is clearly some cultural influence urging them to do so." Universities have tried everything from detective software to the threat of expulsion to combat the problem, with little success. After pursuing three years of ethnographic research at Notre Dame, where she teaches, and conducting hundreds of interviews with students, Ms. Blum points to a culture of achievement among students that has, counter-intuitively, encouraged them to plagiarize to get ahead. Before college, families "have nurtured, praised, and encouraged" these students, Ms. Blum writes, keeping them busy with enriching (and résumé-enhancing) activities. But such "social conditioning" has also cultivated a chronic anxiety about success.

Like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, Ms. Blum views her subjects -- "digital natives" -- as an exotic species. She notes their constant use of email, text messaging and the Internet. She declares them to be "the wordiest and most writerly generation in a long while" and anoints their conversational tendency to quote TV shows and films an admirable form of "intertextuality." They are "storming the barricades" of a new digital future, she claims, using the Internet to engage in collaborative work and to expand their knowledge base. She finds the hapless faculty members charged with teaching such students "embattled and bewildered." In other words: Get Twittering, grandma.

Ms. Blum also embraces various postmodern theories of plagiarism. Internet-savvy, intertextual ingénues don't steal words; they engage in "patchwriting" and "pastiche," constructing essays the way they create eclectic music playlists for their iPods. This practice, she argues, can be viewed as a form of homage or reverence as much as theft. In fact, as Ms. Blum's research demonstrates, students today view writing -- however we might define such a thing in a "pastiche" culture -- as a purely instrumental activity: a means to an end.

Thus the laborious effort of ordering one's own thoughts and composing one's own prose -- or giving credit by way of citation -- is a source of great frustration for today's students. They find "slowness and deliberateness . . . at odds with their customary focus on speed and efficiency, on completing one task as fast as possible so they can get on with the next one that is inevitably hanging over their head." But isn't this aversion to careful practices all the more reason that students should be made to learn them? Even Ms. Blum admits that students are not oblivious of traditional standards: "Rather than being entirely ignorant of the principles of citation, students are often aware of them but do not entirely accept them."

More persuasive is Ms. Blum's analysis of the new kind of self that she sees emerging among these students. Rejecting the old notion of an "authentic self," they become "performance selves." They "say and write whatever works for their practical purposes; it need not belong to them alone."

More persuasive is Ms. Blum's analysis of the new kind of self that she sees emerging among these students. Rejecting the old notion of an "authentic self," they become "performance selves." They "say and write whatever works for their practical purposes; it need not belong to them alone." If the authentic self "wishes to find the place in which to feel at home," Ms. Blum writes, "the performance self wishes to feel at home in all places, as long as there is a way to connect to everyone else."

To her credit, Ms. Blum is not an apologist for plagiarism, and she argues persuasively that it is counterproductive to treat as cheaters students who merely fail to grasp academia's often Byzantine standards of citation. Her larger goal -- to question the high-achieving, results-oriented culture of higher education -- is a good one, too. But she too often recasts a student's choice to pass off someone else's work as his own as a failure of culture rather than a failure of character. "We can only partly blame the individuals who cheat," she says. "They have absorbed the cultural messages about competition, success, multitasking, and the bottom line." This is an artful dodge: It is possible to compete and succeed, even to "multitask," without bending the rules. People manage to do so every day. Professors may prefer to view plagiarism as an act of postmodern textual liberation, but they are failing their students if they don't teach respect for the ideas and words of others.

In the end, a generation that has few qualms about perpetrating a kind of mass intellectual mugging will face challenges in a post-college culture that, especially now, values transparency above all else. Judging by Ms. Blum's research, it is not a proper understanding of success and achievement that today's students lack. It is discipline of the mind and a willingness to delay gratification -- traits that perhaps only real-world experience can teach them. Steal someone else's words and they shrug. Steal their iPods? Now you have their attention.



Christine Rosen. "It's Not Theft, It's Pastiche." The Wall Street Journal (April 16, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Author

Christine Rosen is involved in the Project on Biotechnology and writes about the history of genetics, the social impact of technology, the fertility industry, and bioethics. She is a senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society. Mrs. Rosen is the author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, a history of the ethical and religious debates surrounding the eugenics movement in the United States, published by Oxford University Press in 2004. Since 1999, she has also been an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, where she has written about women and the economy, feminism, and women's studies. Mrs. Rosen’s most recent book, My Fundamentalist Education, the story of a Christian fundamentalist school in Florida, was published by PublicAffairs in December 2005. The Washington Post Book World named My Fundamentalist Education one of the best nonfiction books of 2006. Mrs. Rosen has been the recipient of fellowships from Emory University and from the American Philosophical Society. She earned a B.A. in History from the University of South Florida in 1993, and a Ph.D. in History from Emory University in 1999. Mrs. Rosen lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Jeffrey and their two sons.

Copyright © 2009 Wall Street Journal
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