Friday, 20 November 2009

Make it Mine, or Ideas as Opiates

Poor old Witi. Every sour faced, four eyed, crossed legged academic (which is all of them), is laying down the hate on what has been defended as an accident.

Call it envy, call it racism, I don't care; plagiarism is what makes the world go round. Without free moving ideas societies would (and have) fall(en).

In today's NZ Herald the headline reads 'Plagiarists like drug cheats'. Excuse me! Just google that phrase and see that is not a unique idea, in fact one article (which I can't be bothered crediting) says 'Performance Enhancing Drug Users are Guilty of Athletic Plagiarism'. A stolen idiom, not tabled and cited correctly. Shame on the doyen of New Zealand literature for making such allegations, (the alligators).

One of the most frustrating aspects to study in the electronic age (not my phrase), is the requirement to credit all the good ideas that you've nicked out of textbooks and journal articles. In fact this scientific approach to study has been a two edged sword.

On one hand writing an essay or a dissertation is more like colour by numbers. Find the pre-written material that answers the question exactly as the academic institution expects it to be answered. Just make sure all the citations and the bibliography are written in the correct style. Pepper in a bit of biculturalism for good measure and bingo!, A+

On the other hand (or side of the sword, you pick the metaphor), this clinical approach shows nothing of of the students or authors writing ability or retention. Even worse it show them to be crafty googlers and nothing else. The fact that science has taught us that ideas aren't always best kept in the lab, proves empirically that theories need to be exercised in the real world.

OK so that sentence was a little long winded, but think about it. Theories are researched, often based on a hypothesis. For example, people are generally honest. Think about the results of the lost wallet in street experiment that Readers Digest does occasionally. Now take that experiment back into a lab, scientists watching with clipboards and video cameras. I'd bet the contents of the wallet that 100% of the eager test subjects would hand it back. Humans perform differently when they are watched under scrutiny.

So what does that have to do with the medias word of the week, plagiarism? Everything. Our obsession with who had a good idea first is ridiculous. People have had good ideas for ever, the wheel, the light bulb; I could go on. That fact that Witi Ihimaera took a couple of pages out of some old and irrelevant book without citing it was technically an incorrect thing to do. Especially with the way academic institutions are fixated on plagiarism. It wasn't a crime though.

My point is this. The book is a novel, a wallet on the street experiment if you like. In the real world ideas flow freely, we sing 'Happy Birthday' without acknowledging the copyright holders. Witi would have done well to have credited his research in a bibliography, but he's no thief. The only thieves are those who seek the attention to get their boot in. Shame on them.

Oh, and the last word is for the media. No industry is based more on plagiarism then your's. Reading newsfeeds all day and republishing them in your own words is not journalism. Get off your chairs and go into the real world and investigate some real stories.

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