Review: Howard, Rebecca Moore. (1999). Standing in the shadow of giants: Plagiarists, authors, collaborators. Stamford, Conn.: Ablex Pub.

– Reviewed by Joel Bloch, The Ohio State University, November 30, 2001
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No issue raises more controversy than that of plagiarism. From scholarly journals to the daily newspapers, we hear stories about students cheating. Some have felt that his problem has only been exacerbated by the growth of the Internet, which, according to popular wisdom, allows students to more easily plagiarize by cutting and pasting. Moreover, it may give highly computer-literate students the advantage of their less literate instructors in this battle to control plagiarism. One high school librarian, who noticed a student trying to reformat a plagiarized paper, warns that teachers who are not computer literate may be even more vulnerable to such deceptions: "Maybe a teacher who wasn't as computer literate as I am wouldn't have known to be suspicious." In response, a number of commercial dot-coms have been created that have promised to be able to detect such instances.

Unlike what often seems to be common belief, Plagiarism cannot always be clearly defined. It could be taking entire papers and passing them off as one's own. However, it could also mean taking pieces of texts and not properly paraphrasing or acknowledging them. Some feel that reusing papers that the student has written herself can be considered plagiarism (see Standler, 2000). Moreover, it is not simply a problem of students stealing papers. Well publicized cases of professors, newspaper columnists, and others caught plagiarizing suggest that its definition is not as clear cut as we might often tell our students. For academic writing classes, the issue cuts deep. Not only can plagiarism be a moral and ethical issue but it may also indicate a profound failure in understanding what the purposes of academic writing are. As an ESL composition teacher, I can attest to the fact that plagiarism has long been a concern since it cuts to the heart of the debate over whether students from non-Western cultures have fundamentally different views of plagiarism.

Given all these concerns, can we continue with our current views on plagiarism? In addition to commenting on papers, do we have to become even more vigilant in order to police our students' papers or hire outside firms to do it for us? Rebecca Howard's new book, Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators, gives a definite 'no' for an answer. For a number of years now, Howard has been arguing that we need to rethink the "criminalization" of the type of plagiarism involving copying pieces of texts. She has used the term "patchwriting" to describe the process by which students integrate their own writing with other texts, though not necessarily in the way that would be considered appropriate in an academic context. She has argued that patchwriting was a useful tool for writers to help them gain their own voice.

In this book, however, Howard goes further and argues that patchwriting should be viewed not just as part of a process through which the writer becomes a member of a discourse community but also as a legitimate product. She goes as far as to argue that all writing is patchwriting in that it is created to a greater or lesser extent from other sources and how those sources are acknowledged is not always self evident. Moreover, Howard argues that patchwriting can be viewed as the natural outcome of the process of collaborative writing. Patchwriting involves a process of being able to selectivity choose texts that one wants to interact with, which could be considered a legitimate part of the learning process, regardless of whether those texts are cited properly.

One of Howard's most interesting arguments is the importance she gives to the opposition between traditional views of plagiarism and current composition theory. To put it simply, she feels that current composition theory challenges the traditional, "romantic" view of authorship, which holds the author to be an isolated individual. As many have done in the past, Howard situates our current views of plagiarism as having their origins in the romantic views of authorship. As she points out, these "criminal" views about plagiarism evolved at the same time as our views of copyright law developed. While there is much difference between the two, they share the same metaphor in regard to the idea of text authorship and the moral issues surrounding appropriating these texts. Teachers often use the term "stealing" to refer to the misappropriation of even small amounts of texts, which is the same metaphor used by record and movie company executives to attack those who download intellectual property from the Internet. With its emphasis on collaboration and the social context of writing, contemporary composition theorists, such as Lunsford and Ede, have argued for more socially oriented concepts of authorship. Howard argues that the result of this divergence from traditional views of authorship forces us to redefine these traditional moral views associated with any form of intellectual property. Howard suggests that traditional views of plagiarism are directly connected with traditional views of authorship and what is needed are new ways of teaching about plagiarism that are more consistent with this new evolving paradigm. Instead of just focusing on catching and punishing possible instances of plagiarism, Howard argues that we need to utilize patchwriting as a positive learning strategy, not necessarily as the only way to utilize source texts but as a legitimate approach in of itself.

Although this book represents a major advance in the discussion of plagiarism, there are a number of issues where I disagree with Howard. One of the weaker chapters in the book is where she presents historical or cross-cultural alternatives to the current paradigm. While it is useful to show that concepts of plagiarism are not universal, it is not clear how alternatives from other cultures or historical times are applicable to the situation in the American academy today. I want to take particular issue with her representation of Chinese rhetoric. The issue of plagiarism among Chinese students has long been a controversial issue, both in terms of whether it is culturally bound and when and where it should be a concern. Unfortunately, Howard draws upon a number of sources that have oversimplified the issue, resulting in what I feel is a misrepresentation of how Chinese rhetoric actually view both intellectual property and plagiarism. However, patchwriting in Chinese rhetoric often involves texts that are clearly identifiable to every reader, so there is no question as to who the author is. When a Chinese writer cites Confucius, everyone knows it is Confucius. This situation is not necessarily the same as what Howard considers patchwriting in the West. Moreover, our research shows examples of how patchwriting has gotten Chinese writers into the same trouble as it does Western writers. We showed instances where Chinese writers viewed patchwriting themselves as an extremely negative form; students using patchwriting as a strategy to avoid saying anything controversial, which in certain historical periods was an extremely judicious rhetorical strategy. In these cases, the writers felt that this strategy was of little value except to avoid possible trouble.

A second concern is that the book seems to be avoiding the question of why we are asking students to work with texts in the first place. One thing that differentiates patchwriting from simply cut and pasting a text is that patchwriting assumes that there is a reason why the writer was reading other texts in the first place. Unlike the essayist tradition where the source texts are often covertly embedded into the text, academic writing relies on the overt presence of these texts. It has been argued that every citation has a rhetorical purpose, the most important of these purposes being to support the argument the writer is making or to show the necessity of the research or the consistency of the arguments with previous research. What gives these citations their rhetorical power is not only the logic of the argument but the fact that these arguments have been published and sometimes peer viewed in reputable journals and magazines. This practice of citation can demonstrate knowledge of the field, be used to open gaps in the previous research, show areas of support for the argument, and provide recognition for the author of the text and valuable resources for the readers. Thus, even though academic texts, as well as other forms of texts, can be shown to be instances of patchwriting, the misappropriation of texts can cause serious problems with the rhetoric of an article. What I have found, at least as an L2 composition teacher, is that students do not always seem to understand the rhetorical significance of citing their, apparently feeling that if the words appear to be their own, they have more impact than if they were properly cited. One strategy for dealing with this issue, and one that Howard emphatically rejects, is to have the students "cite, cite, cite." Howard argues that such strategies do not work and contradict her basic argument that patchwriting is itself a valid form of writing.

Since I use this strategy frequently, I am troubled by her criticism of it. What I feel this strategy demonstrates to the students is that the primary decision for choosing to make a citation is its rhetorical impact. The rhetorical importance given to the use of sources texts makes academic writing different than other "open source" projects such as computer programming, which patchwriting in some ways resembles, where the only thing that counts in the end is how well the program runs. On the other hand, students, both L1 and L2, often do not recognize the significance of citation. They seem to feel that incorporating these texts into their own without acknowledging them gives their writing more power. I have never been clear about how Howard's approach deals with this issue and hope it is clarified in the future. It is important to mention, however, that this concern has nothing to do with the argument against the criminalization of these forms of plagiarism. Failure to make appropriate citations or paraphrases is no more criminal than the "failure" to write an organized paper.

My final concern is with the importance Howard places for her argument on what she considers "good composition theory." As with relying on any theory, relying on composition theory can be a matter of faith; if you disagree or if you do not fully agree with the theory, it becomes much more difficult to accept the argument. While there are areas of composition theory, such as what I see as an unnecessary dichotomy between individual authorship and social interaction (with movies being the best example), it is not so much whether I agree or disagree that is the issue. Rather, my concern is first the importance that composition theory has in the practice of teaching composition and second, and more important, whether the impetus for change can therefore come from composition theory. The problem I see is whether composition theory does or should influence composition teaching to the extent that it can influence policies regarding plagiarism. For those teaching in the area of writing across the curriculum or English for special purposes, there has always been the concern how strongly one can rely on both theories and practices solely developed within the sphere of composition while ignoring similar concerns in other areas of the university where writing is important. For teachers in WAC and ESP, there has been a reluctance to impose policies in the composition classroom that differ sharply from those found in other areas of the university. Howard seems to feel that the university may be more "malleable" on this issue than other areas of the society are. However, I do not see much evidence of this. For example, in a colloquy on plagiarism held at the Web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education, there was no discussion from faculty or administrators on changing policies; instead, almost all of the discussion focused on better methods of detection.

There are other forces outside the university that may have a stronger effect on developing alternative views of plagiarism. The most prominent has been the development of alternative forms of intellectual property that have been spurred on by the increased presence of intellectual property in cyberspace. As was mentioned above, despite their differences, there has been a historical relationship between the development of intellectual property law and concepts of plagiarism. Howard does not seem to feel that these developments will have a significant effect on policies regarding plagiarism and recent court decisions regarding Napster and online music suggests that change will be a lot slower than many people thought. Nevertheless, what intrigues me about the role of this debate on plagiarism is primarily that hundreds of thousands of present and future composition students have participated in a process of copying that, like plagiarism, has been deemed criminal by those in authority. If, because of this participation, students come to the university with radically different ideas of what copying intellectual property, it may be that change in attitudes towards plagiarism may be a bottom up process rather the top-down process based on composition theory. As is often said in legal circles, laws, including those of plagiarism, exist because of their ability of the authorities to enforce them and the willingness of the people to obey them. If there is a breakdown in either or both of those areas, then changes in the laws are likely. While, as mentioned above, I do not necessarily agree that all these changes in views on intellectual property are relevant to this discussion of plagiarism, this debate over intellectual property may have a profound affect on this discussion of plagiarism.

None of these concerns lessens my agreement with Howard that those instances of plagiarism that can be shown to fall under the rubric of patchwriting should be decriminalized. As Howard argues at the end of her book, it is crucial that we as composition instructors be able to differentiate types of plagiarism so that we communicate clearer policies about plagiarism to our students. These goals require much more effort than simply reading a statement about plagiarism at the beginning of the class; they necessitate much more discussion and training concerning the issues related to plagiarism instead of simply focusing on ways to detect it. Howard's book may be the most important tool we have for stimulating this discussion.

Publication Information: Bloch, Joel. (2001). [Review of the book Standing in the shadow of giants: Plagiarists, authors, collaborators.]. Academic.Writing. http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/reviews/howard_2001.htm
Publication Date: December 10, 2001


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Copyright © 2001 Joel Bloch. Used with permission.