Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education

By Lyon, Arabella | Composition Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education


Lyon, Arabella, Composition Studies


Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education, by Bill Marsh. Albany: State U of New York P, 2007. 176pp.

Discussions of plagiarism have taken on a provocative edge. Once plagiarism was seen as shameful, transparent, and not really worthy of analysis. Now, however, scholars envision plagiarism as a nexus of socio-economic forces, an opportunity for redemption, a point of tension in global values and practices, a site of pedagogical and aesthetic possibilities, and the product of a complex legal and cultural history. New research on plagiarism often reveals relationships and possibilities hitherto unimagined. The field progresses rapidly, and at the front edge, Bill Marsh's Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education asks and answers new questions, engaging recent political events, regulations, and technologies.

Focused on the disciplinary powers of U.S. higher education in the late twentieth and early twenty first century, this intelligent book adds new technological perspectives to a discussion that is often centered on history or students. Engaging many of the familiar features of plagiary in his careful acknowledgements of earlier scholarship, Marsh also analyzes ways in which faculty, administrators, journalists, policy makers, and software entrepreneurs attempt to manage plagiarism through a range of technologies and techniques. In his critique of the apparatus of anti-plagiarism and the media through which plagiarism flows, he would have us see author and plagiarist as a false binary between origin and health, copy and disease. Rather we might understand them better as sides of the same coin, representing different aspects of authoring. While the first two-thirds of the book expose the dualistic traps of plagiarism's discourse and build a vocabulary and conceptual framework for understanding the tensions surrounding plagiarism and its technologies, the project is at its best in the last two chapters which focus on plagiarism in the age of Internet.

The book begins with the 2002 crimes and scandals involving historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Ambrose had copied passages from copyrighted work, and Goodwin had "closely echoed" sentences from other books. While much of popular and professional culture argues that plagiarism is easy to define, the public discussion in these two cases shows that the problems of definition and punishment are far from clear. In chapter 2, building on the insights of Michel de Certeau and Michel Foucault, Marsh historicizes and theorizes definitions of failed authorship and intellectual property, demonstrating the lack of a stable concept of plagiarism through history. The evolution of the rights of original authorship created a dynamic tension between the value of originality and the crime of literary theft, between personal issues of plagiarism and legal issues of copyright infringement. Marsh focuses on plagiarism as an authorial failure of creation that, in turn, interpolates the writer as a "false, fraudulent anti-author" (34). Artists, such as Kathy Acker, may use this position to innovate, but the historical development of intellectual property laws makes it difficult to conceive authorship without property and ownership rights, that is, as other than commodity. Conceiving plagiarism and plagiarism detection as different authoring activities, Marsh characterizes plagiarism detection and remedies as Foucauldian mechanisms which regulate authorship and writing. In the frame of economic and commercial practices, anti-plagiarism technologies control the flow of information. In chapter 3, Marsh connects anti-plagiarism discourse to the emergence of the research paper in the 1920's, following the enactment of the 1909 Copyright Act. He examines administrative and pedagogical responses to the rise of mass education and the historical trend to diminish student writing and protect "real authors." The research paper's growth following the 1909 law suggests two fundamental contradictions. …

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