Getting away with cheating

Last Sunday, on the same opinion page where John Hewson excoriated Peter Costello, Kerry-Anne Walsh wrote a piece defending Julie Bishop, and accusing her detractors of double standards.

Bishop wasn’t a bad performer. Yes, she made a few stumbles but the one that was most often thrown at her – plagiarism of a Wall Street Journal article – was a cut-and-paste mistake by a staffer.

That incident was in September. The Australian reported at the time that:

Coalition sources have confirmed a staffer admitted using the material without referencing it, “a mistake they won’t make again”.

So, what’s a ‘referencing mistake’? Presumably it’s something as trivial as a ‘cut and paste mistake’. In fact, omitting a footnote and failing to delete sentences originally cut and pasted from someone else’s document are not the same thing. Moreover, while each of them independently might be forgiven as a careless oversight, when they occur simultaneously it’s unlikely to be innocent.

The Wall Street Journal episode was followed by the discovery in October that parts of Bishop’s chapter in Peter Van Onselen’s book were copied verbatim from some decade-old speech.

Mark Metherell in the Herald was happy to go along with thr careless error interpretation:

Ms Bishop’s staff played down that gaffe which resulted from an oversight by staff in another office failing to attribute the excerpts in the rush to prepare what was Ms Bishop’s first speech to Parliament as shadow treasurer…

Ms Bishop was aware Mr Hansen had used bits of a speech by the New Zealand business leader Roger Kerr and had asked Mr Hansen in April to supply footnotes attributing these…

There were “up to half a dozen sentences” were lifted from Mr Kerr’s article. “I forgot to footnote it,” Mr Hansen said. “It was 100 per cent my responsibility.”

On the contrary, if footnotes had been inserted attributing the ideas, someone would have noticed that the text itself had been reproduced verbatim.

As if the only thing wrong was the missing footnote. What happened to the idea of putting quotations in quotation marks?

I forgot to insert the reference’ is exactly what undergraduate students say when you catch them out plagiarising. In ten percent of cases (mostly overseas students) they truly haven’t grasped the point about quotation marks: cutting and pasting is so firmly established a practice in the country or high school they came from that they actually don’t realise it matters whether they use their own words or someone else’s.

But for the other ninety percent, it’s just desperate obfuscation. By seeking to restrict the terms of reference to the missing footnote or citation, which seem harmless enough, and apologising extravagantly for his careless oversight (‘Very sorry for any inconvenience’, he says, piously), the plagiarist hopes to distract his accuser from the issue of why the quote wasn’t demarcated and referred to as a quote in the text itself.

The case of the Van Onselen book, which also involved Brendan Nelson, had the effect of refocusing debate on the questions whether politicians should use ghost writers, and whether they should be accountable for their staffers’ mistakes. Those questions then became ‘the real issues’ and were ably analysed by Mark Bahnisch and Andrew Norton at the time. But in the process the staffers’ actual actions and their own culpability became blurred and forgotten.

That could explain why, with Bishop’s resignation causing the plagiarism matter to resurface once more, we see the likes of Kerry-Ann Walsh apparently air brushing it.

Or is it because she doesn’t actually care about cheating? If so, she’s vindicating Don’s 81 percent.

‘Cut and paste mistake’? Fiddledydee.

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5 Responses to Getting away with cheating

  1. Given that a large % of any newspaper consists of cut and pastes from media releases it’s hardly surprising that a journalist might see nothing wrong with cut and paste of another’s work.

  2. Tel_ says:

    I forgot to insert the reference is exactly what undergraduate students say when you catch them out plagiarising. In ten percent of cases (mostly overseas students) they truly havent grasped the point about quotation marks: cutting and pasting is so firmly established a practice in the country or high school they came from that they actually dont realise it matters whether they use their own words or someone elses.

    To be completely fair, from a global perspective it really doesn’t matter. The idea that it is “cheating” to redo what someone else once did before is a peculiarity of the Western mindset and probably only the relatively modern Western mindset. Indeed, “cheating” implies that a rule was broken, so might be appropriate to explain precisely which rule was broken, and where is the rulebook?

  3. James Farrell says:

    Sure, Tel. The rule is to not pass off someone else’s writing, or any other work for that matter, as your own. Copying a text verbatim isn’t ‘redoing’ it in any relevant sense. If you were a judge in a painting competition I doubt you’d be happy to discover that you’d just awarded the prize for a painting copied to perfection (‘redone’) from a Van Gogh.

    This prohibition may be a pecularity of the modern western mindset, but so is free speech, tolerance of same-sex relationships, and aversion to slavery and wife-beating.

    Do you plagiriase, as a matter of intrerest?

  4. Tel_ says:

    The rule is to not pass off someone elses writing, or any other work for that matter, as your own.

    Is that an actual law, or just a rule that you happen to like? Where did you get this rule from? Is there a place for me to read the rest of these rules or do I need to ask on each particular case?

    Let me put this another way, if I was a judge in a painting competition, then I’d be judging by the rules of that competition (whatever suited the prize giver presumably). Now the Parliament of Australia is not a painting competition, and Julie Bishop is not there to be judged on either her speech writing ability, or her delivery. The parliament has the clear purpose of debating policy and I don’t see this whole storm in a teacup contributing one iota towards that purpose. If material presented to parliament has been presented elsewhere then the primary focus is the content of that material and it’s relevance to decisions that effect the future of Australia.

    Do you plagiriase, as a matter of intrerest?

    I stand on the shoulders of giants. So many, that I can only remember a few of the names. I do believe there is some politeness in making reference to the great people of the past who have contributed their ideas to our current way of life, but I see no tangible value in turning such details into an obsession.

    How about you?

    Did you remember to say your thank-you to Otto, Dunlop and Kettering last time you started the car, or did you just blithely go and use their work without even a second thought, let alone an out loud acknowledgment?

  5. James Farrell says:

    There’s a rule prohibiting plagiarism in the same sense that there are rules prohibiting lying and breaking promises. It’s generally frowned on, and in some contexts prohibited by statutes or actionable under common law. I didn’t realise this was controversial.

    Your remarks about giants, starting cars, and so on, don’t have anything to do with my definition of plagiarism, which is reproducing verbatim someone else’s writing as though it were your own.

    No, I never do that, and I’m still curious whether you do.

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