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Book Review: My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture

Brian Whalley reviews a look at this problem from an American anthropologist and finds there is more in it than just a consideration of plagiarism.

My Word! is an attention-grabbing title for a book on plagiarism by an academic anthropologist and teacher. Although written entirely from a North American perspective, many bells will ring here for all concerned with teaching and education. Do not, however, expect a set of ideas or rules to prevent (!) or reduce plagiarism.

Susan Blum suggests that the real problem of academic dishonesty, of which plagiarism is a part, arises primarily from a lack of communication between two distinct cultures within the university setting. Lecturers (and administrators) regard plagiarism as a serious crime, an ethical transgression. It might also be considered as a sin against an ethos of individualism and originality. However, students revel in sharing, in multiplicity of tasks and in accomplishment at any cost. This book is unlikely to reassure readers (probably academics, administrators maybe) who hope that alleged rates of plagiarism can be reversed with strongly worded warnings on the first day of a class. My Word! starts to open a dialogue between academic staff and their students that might lead to mutual understanding. It should also provide the basis for a better alignment between teachers' expectations and students' practices. It should be noted that My Word! is an anthropological study and not a treatise on how to prevent plagiarism, although Blum does finally make some telling suggestions to accommodate plagiarism based on her study.

What Do We Mean by Plagiarism?

Now I was not short of time for writing this review. Nevertheless, I did plagiarise the previous paragraph from the dust jacket of the book. Or rather, I copied it, altered a few words and the order of some statements and added two sentences at the end, but otherwise reproduced it as written. This practice has been termed 'patchwriting' by Rebecca Moore Howard [1] and is discussed in 'My Word!' as the '... universally banned practices of "copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another."' ([2] p. 26). Yet reviewers, this one included, probably find it difficult to avoid doing this, especially if space is restricted – somebody else has said it accurately and succinctly. This is where Blum's book is fascinating since she explores the idea of plagiarism and related concepts from several points of view. First, from that of the academic establishment in several chapters: 'A question of judgement, Plagiarism is not one thing, once and for all', 'Intertextuality, Authorship and Plagiarism; My word, your word, their word -> our word' and, Chapter 3 'Observing the performance self, multiplicity versus authenticity'. These three chapters make interesting reading as one is forced to contemplate and reflect on one's own practice and how that might be viewed by students and indeed by observers from a non-academic standpoint. The investigations in these chapters use interviews with students, discussions with colleagues and references to appropriate literature (fully referenced and with 11 pages of notes and bibliography). The arguments range widely and include related aspects such as copyright, intellectual property rights (IPR), music and video downloading.

Early on ([2] p. 12), Blum makes an interesting textual distinction between 'cheating', 'inadvertent plagiarism' and 'professional infringement'. I have adapted this as Figure 1. It is useful as a means of mapping specific sins or crimes, morals and rules and how 'bad' each instance is that one might encounter; music downloads provide an interesting example.

diagram (19KB) : Figure 1 : Ternary diagram showing the relationships between three aspects of plagiarism, after Blum

Figure 1: Ternary diagram showing the relationships between three aspects of plagiarism, after Blum [2].

Personal viewpoint is important here in terms of punitive response or permissiveness as well as different types of plagiarism incorporated into the ternary scheme (Blum's Table 1, [2] p. 27). This book forces you to look at a variety of such issues as well as 'plagiarism' as we usually understand it within academic communities and the world at large. (Do I now hold some sort of authority for devising the visual image of Figure 1, even though using and crediting Blum's concept? Please discuss in a group and write it up in no more than a page.)

Group and individual values are related to academe and, with the introduction of the Internet and Web-based materials, we are all bobbing around in various types of boat in seas of information. Blum suggests that, 'students must learn that if they wish to succeed, they must grasp the concept of authority and its rules so that they can perform according to them.' ([2] p. 90).

Chapter 4, 'Growing up in the college bubble, the tasks and temptations of adolescence' is the analysis and discussion of college education for 'Generation Y' and how plagiarism is linked to it. For those of us in Gen X, this is an interesting and perhaps even alarming tour. Blum guides us through this with skill and makes detours into binge drinking, honour codes and 'helicopter parents'. Her aim in this, the lengthiest chapter, is to describe the prevailing culture to ensure the reader clearly understands plagiarism in its various manifestations. It is well worth the read as it casts light on aspects of student educational behaviour beyond that of plagiarism and other issues related to cheating.

The title of Chapter 5, 'No magic bullet, Deconstructing Plagiarism' does not tell all, but indicates that 'solutions' involving policing (such as the use of 'Turnitin' software) may represent a deterrent but are not the answer. Once more, the anthropologist looking at academic integrity, honour, morality and legality, again by using peer-peer music file-sharing as an example, demonstrates the complexity of living in an information-rich 21st Century.


Blum's 'Conclusion' is sub-titled 'what is to be done?' There is of course no answer, despite what academics (and administrators) might like to think. So Blum offers some suggestions based on her experience and investigations. While it does not serve readers to list them, a few brief quotations will perhaps give a flavour of the sociological basis for the chapter. 'The fundamental law is that we be honest; students are excellent detectors of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy begs for uncovering' (p. 174). And, associated with a specific case, 'This time around I saw the academic miscreant as more of a lost soul than a hardened criminal'. This changing viewpoint comes with the acceptance that there is a 'mismatch' between the academy's and students' expectations.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, it provided new viewpoints and ideas and suggests ways of approaching plagiarism. The purview is largely from the US and consequently does not consider issues encountered more commonly outside the US, especially concerning students from other cultures; see for example East [3] for a discussion from an Australian point of view. Its 180 pages of main text are thought-provoking and easy to read, the anthropological discussion is mostly to be found in the Notes section. Your reflection is the tricky bit. If you are involved with education then you will find it very worthwhile. I shall finish with three suggestions from Susan Blum's analysis which universities might adopt (p. 179). As a disciple of Douglas N. Adams ('A learning experience is one of those things that says, 'You know that thing you just did? Don't do that.' [4]), I find them particularly significant, although not ones I might expect to read in a book on plagiarism:

Don't panic!

Really educate these young people. Empower them. Don't treat them as children to be disciplined "because I say so."

A revolutionary approach would be to abolish college as the major adolescent challenge: separate the intellectual from the other endeavors. Institutionalize a two-year service obligation prior to beginning higher education. Let students begin to grow up a little before they enter our classes.


  1. Howard, R.M. "Plagiarisms, authorships, and the academic death penalty. 1995. College English, 57 no 2, November, 788-806.
  2. Blum, S. D. "My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture". 2009, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  3. East, J. "The problem of plagiarism in academic culture" 2006. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 2, 16-28
  4. Adams, D. N. "The Salmon of Doubt" 1992, London, Macmillan. p. 274.

Author Details

W. Brian Whalley
Professor of Geomorphology
School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology
Queen's University of Belfast
Belfast BT7 1NN

Email: b.whalley@qub.ac.uk
Web site: http://geognet.qub.ac.uk/people/staff/whalley/

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