Editorial Pages – As if AU didn’t have enough to overcome…

As if AU didn’t have enough to overcome…

If you live in Alberta, you’re probably already sick of hearing about Ralph Klein and the heavily plagiarized essay he submitted to the Alberta legislature last week in a bizarre attempt to worm his academic work into an entirely unrelated discussion on insurance rates. Klein clearly wanted to impress his cronies by showing he’d learned something new. The paper was an assignment the premier had recently submitted for an Athabasca University senior communications course.

It’s sad enough that a man with nearly 25 years in politics, and a background in journalism and public relations, has only discovered Allende, Pinochet and the pressures that have ravaged Chile and other Latin American countries. Sadder yet that Klein boldly presented his take on the issue in front of a house of well-educated “peers” as though he was the first to discover it, as though he felt he might educate his legislature, some of whom already hold doctorates and master’s degrees.

It’s nothing less than what we expect of Ralph, who more and more has come to remind us of the obnoxious uncle that comes over for Christmas, has a few too many, and waxes arrogant.

It’s not surprising that the media leapt upon the story, and sunk in their fangs the moment the first hint of wrong-doing was in the air. The coverage has been so extensive, Albertan’s might feel that they’ve already read everything that could possibly be said on the matter. What I find intriguing, however, is what has not been said.

For one thing, the controversy has brought to the fore the issue of plagiarism, as journalists have attempted to “educate” the population as to what constitutes this serious academic offence; meanwhile many qualified academics have swallowed their ethics and praised the premier for the good work he did in locating such illuminating material to present as his own. Good boy, Ralph!

Incidentally, neither of the quoted websites contains material from academic sources. One of them is a slightly sensational site devoted to profiling famous 10th century killers and heroes. The material on that site is not referenced.

Nevertheless, it has been suggested that if Ralph had only placed the quoted material in quotation marks and used a proper citation, then his essay would be acceptable. That is not the case.

The Copyright Act of Canada does not specify how much material out of a particular piece can be quoted — at least not in a specific number of words. It would be ridiculous to define it this way. What if you were quoting a song that only had a hundred words?

The act allows for limited reproduction of a work under the “fair dealing” clause, similar to the “fair use” clause in the US, which is better known. These terms refer to the allowance to reproduce — or quote — a portion of a published work for the purpose of “criticism or review.” In other words, you may include a portion of another’s work in your own for the purpose of contextualizing your own commentary or criticism. You may not use the work of another to state your case for you, which is what Mr. Klein did. A full page and a half of his paper (single spaced) was lifted from two different internet sites with many paragraphs taken verbatim, and it is the work of the authors of those websites that explains the military coup of Pinochet, not Mr. Klein.

It is also generally understood that “fair dealing” limits the amount that you can use from a source. While not defined in terms of length, it is more often described as what would constitute a substantial or definitive portion of the work. While determining fair use can be complicated, as a guideline it is usually safe to assume that multiple paragraphs, quoted without the insertion of additional commentary, would be far in excess of the limited allowance for use in criticism or commentary.

So even if Ralph Klein had properly cited his sources in the infamous essay, it would still probably be an infringement of copyright simply because of the amount of text that was used. It is very nearly a reprint.

Academically speaking, the impropriety is much easier to define: Klein did not explain the subject matter he was presenting in his paper; he used other people’s words to do so. If it was his job to simply collate information and create an aggregate report for a board or employer, that would be fine. That is not the task of a university student. We can assume that our professors already know a great deal about the subject matter we are presenting to them. Senior courses do not ask us to locate data and present it to our instructors, they ask us to learn, and to present evidence of our learning. One Alberta professor has praised Ralph Klein for his research, but does not seem to see a necessity to translate research findings into an originally written statement of findings.

Part of me wishes I could simply cut material off the net for my own paper. I’m a heck of a good internet researcher. I could write my papers in an hour or so. Alas, my goal is to learn, not just to pass.

What is most shocking to me about the Ralph Klein case, as it look at it from the perspective of the editor of this publication, is that I would not have accepted Mr. Klein’s paper as a Voice article — both on the grounds of plagiarism, and because The Voice only pays for original works. Why are academic standard’s looser than this paper’s?

This brings me to another bit of misinformation that has been circulating as a result of this story: that is the notion that the internet makes it easier to plagiarize, and harder to detect plagiarism. Baloney!

There was nothing stopping people from typing in passages from books before the internet existed, and it’s only marginally easier to crop information from the net. What has always been a challenge for editors and professors, is determining when plagiarism has occurred.

Some writers make it easy. Once in a while you get a submission that just screams plagiarism. Usually this is from a writer who has very poor writing skills, trying to pass off a published article as their own — or portions of a published article. The sudden difference in style and syntax is easy to spot. The Voice has received a few submissions of this type, and we’re always on the lookout for more.

In fact, checking for plagiarism is one of the more time-consuming parts of my job. It is always my fear that a writer might crib substantial portions from a book and I would be none the wiser. A smart plagiarist could go very far indeed. Fortunately, very few writers have ever sent in fully plagiarized articles, but often writers will fail to properly cite their sources — particularly the in-text portion of the citation — and they often forget to put quotes around quoted material. It is unintentional, but it’s still my job to find it and correct it.

The internet may or may not have increased the rate of plagiarism, but I would strongly argue that it’s made it infinitely easier to find out of plagiarized material is being used! All I need is a few minutes and Google. If I am not certain an article is properly cited, and the sources are from the net, I can simply surf to the sites listed in the bibliography and check the source materials. By taking this simple step, I’ve found dozens of instances of full sentences used without proper quotes or citations. The authors simply did not realize that placing a link at the bottom was not enough. Locating the source and correcting the article is a breeze.

Prior to the internet, I would have had to go to a library and locate the book that was being quoted. Not all publications are available at all libraries. Finding print-based sources can be incredibly time-consuming, and as I understand it, reference checking is an enormous part of any professors job — one I do not envy.

Finding out if quotations are properly punctuated, if the source is a long book, is nearly impossible. It could mean reading the entire book to find where cited material is located, whereas online, I can simply drop a sentence in quotes into my Google search bar and find it in the source in an instant.

In fact, the Google toolbar is a must for any editor. Frequently, I do random web searches on phrases from Voice submissions, and if they are out there on the net, I’ll find them. I do this both to ensure that The Voice is not reprinting material without permission, and to ensure that other websites are not pilfering Voice author’s material.

Professors could do this just as easily. In fact, when I received a copy of Ralph Klein’s article and heard that there might be plagiarized material, I did just that. It took me less than five minutes to locate the sources of the cribbed material. It wasn’t hard or time consuming. Klein made it obvious, which supports the notion that he simply did not know any better. One the other hand, I did note that Klein had carefully gone through all of the material he cut and pasted, and changed the tense from the present to the past. This it not an uncommon technique of those trying to hide plagiarism (by making it harder to find a phrase in a web search) or those trying to get around using quotes. I’ll give Klein the benefit of the doubt and assume he did this simply to keep the tense of his paper consistent, and that he did not realize that every altered word had to be placed in square brackets.

The real point here is that Klein did make it obvious. I understand how a professor might miss a serious case of plagiarism because a clever student has used obscure material from a source only available in print. I also understand that professors don’t have time to check every sentence for plagiarism, because I’m in the same boat. But Klein did not list a single reference correctly. In fact, his bibliography consisted of a list of links, without the name of the site, the date of retrieval, or any attempt at a full citation. That’s a clear red flag (I’ve lost marks for simply formatting my references incorrectly, though all of the information was there).

He also used the single word “Internet” to create in-text citations for over ten websites, and he used the two letter abbreviation “PI” for in-text citations of three separate personal interviews. I know of no professor who would allow that, and it’s not ok in The Voice either. In text citations must be unique, so that it is clear which bibliographical source is being referred to. Without knowing that, how can a professor even mark a paper?

It is clear in Klein’s paper, when the reader comes upon the citation “(Internet)” at the end of the paragraph, that some investigation is required to determine what portion is from the internet. Or, the paper could be returned to the student for clarification. Again, this is something I have done many times.

So the question of the day has become: Is Ralph Klein given preferential treatment by AU?

I hope so. It’s a more palatable assumption than the belief that academic standards are a thing of the past.

On a personal note, I’d love to see Ralph take an AU psychology or women’s studies course. The profs are positively fierce about perfect reference style. The only paper I’ve ever had sent back for further referencing was from an AU women’s studies prof, and while I secretly cussed her out at the time, I have to say: I’d rather be angry at my professor for forcing me to bring my work to a higher level, than graduate with a feeling that I learned very little. My AU education so far has been more challenging that I could have imagined, and all the more rewarding for that.

Copyright Act of Canada: http://www.cb-cda.gc.ca/info/act-e.html

Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief

[The opinions of the Voice Editor are her own. They do not reflect the opinions of the Athabasca University Students’ Union, or any other person or group.]


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