Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Plagiarism

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I plagiarized a creative paper in the tenth grade.

Writing that sentence literally gave me anxiety hives, itching red welts on my legs and crawling up my armpits. Admitting that, when I was fourteen years old, I copied several paragraphs, verbatim, and submitted them for an assignment as my own, makes me want to shrivel up with shame. It was a *creative* paper to, something that I could have just made up and gotten a fine mark on, but the truth of the matter is I couldn't be arsed to come up with anything. So I grabbed a few monologues from comic books I was reading at the time, tied them together with a few ugly sentences, slapped my name on it and called it a day.

There were mitigating circumstances, as there always are. The course was the most mismanaged failure of an English class as I have ever suffered through. Our teacher went out on maternity leave very early, only a few days into the semester. So, the school called a substitute. And, rather than arrange a proper replacement for the semester, they continued to call that same substitute every single day. For the whole term. This meant that there were never any lesson plans, no through lines to what we were being taught, just an endless succession of make-work exercises. Our marking was all handled off site, and the turn-around was abysmal. Our mid-term, final exam, and major project were all templates taken directly from the ministry of education. The teacher, who after weeks and weeks of this realized what was happening tried to give us some semblance of a real class, but by then we were already badly behind. It was an exercise in frustration. Feeling that no one was watching, or caring about the work I submitted at all, I handed in something that wasn't mine.

I don't know if I've told anyone this. I've written candidly before about intimate parts of my life, from struggles with mental illness to major heartbreak, but this confession is not one I have made before. Somewhere in my brain, I think I believe that I can be robbed of all my education to this point and sent back to high school in disgrace, like the worst anxiety dream in history.

I make this confession to make a point, and one I believe is very, very important. I admit this sin to that I can make this statement: no one accidentally commits plagiarism ever. It is a decision that a writer makes out of arrogance or laziness, greed or hubris. It is a choice. It's a form of active deception and theft.

There are degrees of plagiarism, of course. I'm not talking about failing to cite something properly and according to format, as was drilled into my head during my undergrad while I was painfully learning to write papers in MLA format. I'm not even talking about finding a few lines in a piece that are a little too close to their sources, or leaving out a link or footnote in a rush to file. These are mistakes, and it is easy to see how errors can be made especially when writers are under pressure. I'm talking about taking someone's work, putting your name on it and claiming it as your own. Something akin to what Christian Ward did when he submitted a poem by Helen Mort to the Hope Bourne Poetry Prize. Or, what former director of the Toronto District School Board Chris Spence did when he copied huge chunks of other journalists' work and claimed them as his own articles (including an anecdote about telling his children about Newtown). Or, to a lesser extent, what Margaret Wente did in including many uncited sentences originally written by other experts in several of her pieces over the years.

Plagiarism is, in a lot of ways, a childish writing sin. Little kids copy from each other, on assignments and tests, to spare themselves the work, to cheat the system. Struggling undergraduate students who feel dry of ideas or short on time buy essays rather than write them. Plagiarism is a way to get around making something of your own and still getting credit for it.

This is why, I think, plagiarism has become such a betrayal of the writer's audience, the writing equivalent of a star athlete being revealed as a doper: more credit for less effort, and the sense that something that you claimed as the product of your own ability, was not. 

It also goes against a huge part of what writing is, at its core: work, and process. Writing is a practice, in the meditative sense, and a relationship. It is something that is strengthened only by time and labour.  You work out, gain endurance, add creative muscle, deepen the quality of your abilities and the work you produce. Plagiarism is, at it's heart, anti-writing. It's like writing dark matter, the exact opposite of the thing that it is meant to mimic. It is a desire for accolade without effort, and ignores what lies at the centre of the writing process: the relationship between a writer and their words. 

As much as we roll out eyes at it, there is an implicit acceptance of the apology the caught plagiarist tends to offer: that is was a mistake, that they submitted an early draft, that they were using someone else's work as a template, that they took their notes too well. The fact of the matter is, when plagiarism is egregious, there is only one real apology that is adequate: "I did something wrong. I took someone else's work as my own to spare myself the effort and to gain acclaim for it. This was small and weak, and I'm sorry."

Think of yourself as an athlete. Train hard, and work clean. Live or die by your own abilities. Stand up for everything you write, and stand behind it be fully accountable for your work. And never, ever piss hot. Get by on your own sweat and muscle, and if that means being merely good instead of being a champ, own your accomplishment and occupy that place with genuine pride. Be so proud of your work you wouldn't dream of taking someone else's words because you could never believe in them much as you could believe in your own.

1 comment

It is true that students have started trying plagiarism as it seems easier to copy few lines of the others and complete a coursework. However, they should not forget that a Plag Tracker or turnitin alternative can be used by the teachers to detect the plagiarized academic work.

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Natalie Zina Walschots

Natalie Zina Walschots is a music writer, poet and editor based in Toronto. She writes for a number of publications, both in print and online. Natalie's second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems For Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press in the Spring of 2012.

Go to Natalie Zina Walschots’s Author Page