Plagiarism and Scholarship: A Lesson from the Bee

Karen Swallow Prior

We're reposting this essay as students are writing and professors are grading papers early in the semester. We had asked Karen Swallow Prior to address the topic of plagiarism. She came back with this piece, instructive to writers and graders alike.

Anyone who teaches knows plagiarism is a problem. In fact, by most accounts, it just keeps getting worse: in a Rutgers University survey of over 63,700 U. S. undergraduate and 9,250 graduate students over the course of three years (2002-2005), more than one-third of undergraduate and one-fourth of graduate students admitted to not documenting material; and a 2011 survey by The Pew Research Center and the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that college plagiarism had grown even worse since then.

Putting aside the all-too-frequent unintentional plagiarism that occurs because many students have never been taught the principles of documentation (a lot of attention is given to format, thereby focusing only on portions that are documented, leaving undocumented passages unaddressed and bad habits reinforced), and putting aside laziness and procrastination whose cures are as simple as they are difficult, pressure is probably the most significant cause of plagiarism. The pressure to succeed. The pressure for the “A.” The pressure to get to the next thing, be that graduate school or the job market. The pressure to please the hovering parents.

Certainly, we can’t ever eliminate all the reasons why students plagiarize. But I have found that a significant contributor to the problem — one that undercuts many of the reasons students do it — is that many students today have an erroneous idea about what scholarship should look like.

Today’s students have been raised in a culture which values “creativity” and “originality” overmuch, often at the expense of quainter notions like discipline and authority. For all of their lives, students are praised for their use of “imagination.”  Acculturated within a highly individualistic society, the idea of working within a community and tradition of scholarship — and offering the signs (notes) that one is doing so — runs counter to everything they have learned.  Students tend to think, therefore, that their work should be “their own” and that citations are a sign of inferior work. They come prejudiced against citations because they view documented research as mere regurgitation that lacks the “uniqueness” our culture has taught them, since the Romantic Age, to strive for.

Even if they can’t articulate all this, they express it in the kinds of questions they ask when I am assigning research topics and teaching the methods of research and documentation. Inevitably, on that umpteenth day of class when the rules of documentation finally sink in, a student will exclaim, “But that means 90% of my paper will be citations!”

“Of course, it will,” I respond and 25 sets of eyes stare at me incredulously. “Unless one of you in here happens to be a closet expert on Greek tragedy, modern drama, or the genres of comedy ….” I let my voice trail off, and my eyes scan the eyes staring back at me, as if to make sure. “I thought not,” I say. Then I explain to them that in academia, the more footnotes they have, the smarter they look. And their eyes open wider. Such a notion is antithetical to so much of what they have been taught, implicitly and explicitly, their whole lives.

So I launch into a lecture about the way progress comes from building upon the foundations laid by those who went before us, the roles tradition and authority play in the advancement of knowledge, how innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum but emerges from a community of learners and scholars, and how the first time a student is actually expected to contribute “original research” is with the Ph.D. dissertation.

And I watch as their worlds tilt a little and their shoulders lift a bit as if a burden has rolled down onto the floor.

Then I tell them the tale of the spider and the bee, a sort of story within a story, which comes from Jonathan Swift’s brilliant 1704 satire, The Battle of the Books:

For upon the highest corner of a large window, there dwelt a certain spider, swollen up to the first magnitude by the destruction of infinite numbers of flies, whose spoils lay scattered before the gates of his palace, like human bones before the cave of some giant.  . . .  when it was the pleasure of fortune to conduct thither a wandering bee, to whose curiosity a broken pane in the glass had discovered itself, and in he went, where, expatiating a while, he at last happened to alight upon one of the outward walls of the spider’s citadel; which, yielding to the unequal weight, sunk down to the very foundation.  Thrice he endeavoured to force his passage, and thrice the centre shook.  The spider within, feeling the terrible convulsion, supposed at first that nature was approaching to her final dissolution, or else that Beelzebub, with all his legions, was come to revenge the death of many thousands of his subjects whom his enemy had slain and devoured.  However, he at length valiantly resolved to issue forth and meet his fate.  Meanwhile the bee had acquitted himself of his toils, and, posted securely at some distance, was employed in cleansing his wings, and disengaging them from the ragged remnants of the cobweb.  By this time the spider was adventured out, when, beholding the chasms, the ruins, and dilapidations of his fortress, he was very near at his wit’s end; he stormed and swore like a madman, and swelled till he was ready to burst.  At length, casting his eye upon the bee, and wisely gathering causes from events (for they know each other by sight), “A plague split you,” said he; “is it you, with a vengeance, that have made this litter here; could not you look before you, and be d---d?  Do you think I have nothing else to do (in the devil’s name) but to mend and repair after you?”  “Good words, friend,” said the bee, having now pruned himself, and being disposed to droll; “I’ll give you my hand and word to come near your kennel no more; I was never in such a confounded pickle since I was born.” . . . “Rogue, rogue,” replied the spider, “yet methinks you should have more respect to a person whom all the world allows to be so much your betters.”  “By my troth,” said the bee, “the comparison will amount to a very good jest, and you will do me a favour to let me know the reasons that all the world is pleased to use in so hopeful a dispute.”  At this the spider, having swelled himself into the size and posture of a disputant, began his argument in the true spirit of controversy, with resolution to be heartily scurrilous and angry, to urge on his own reasons without the least regard to the answers or objections of his opposite, and fully predetermined in his mind against all conviction.

“Not to disparage myself,” said he, “by the comparison with such a rascal, what art thou but a vagabond without house or home, without stock or inheritance? born to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe.  Your livelihood is a universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; and, for the sake of stealing, will rob a nettle as easily as a violet.  Whereas I am a domestic animal, furnished with a native stock within myself.  This large castle (to show my improvements in the mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person.”

“I am glad,” answered the bee, “to hear you grant at least that I am come honestly by my wings and my voice; for then, it seems, I am obliged to Heaven alone for my flights and my music; and Providence would never have bestowed on me two such gifts without designing them for the noblest ends.  I visit, indeed, all the flowers and blossoms of the field and garden, but whatever I collect thence enriches myself without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste.  Now, for you and your skill in architecture and other mathematics, I have little to say: in that building of yours there might, for aught I know, have been labour and method enough; but, by woeful experience for us both, it is too plain the materials are naught; and I hope you will henceforth take warning, and consider duration and matter, as well as method and art.  You boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other creature, but of drawing and spinning out all from yourself; that is to say, if we may judge of the liquor in the vessel by what issues out, you possess a good plentiful store of dirt and poison in your breast; and, though I would by no means lesson or disparage your genuine stock of either, yet I doubt you are somewhat obliged, for an increase of both, to a little foreign assistance.  Your inherent portion of dirt does not fall of acquisitions, by sweepings exhaled from below; and one insect furnishes you with a share of poison to destroy another.  So that, in short, the question comes all to this: whether is the nobler being of the two, that which, by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding, and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement and venom, producing nothing at all but flybane and a cobweb; or that which, by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax.”

At the conclusion of telling this tale, I exhort my students as they research and write to be not spiders, but bees.

This is, of course, no guarantee against laziness, dishonesty, apathy, or mere sin nature. But the vast majority of students in my experience err more often out of a desire to please than not. Once they understand that they are expected to build upon knowledge — not create it ex nihilo — it can be transformative. And that, after all, is the point of the entire enterprise.

Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University, Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

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