Pimp my text!

The age of new media has changed academic text production – invite now "Plagiarism Jager" sharply by. However, quality arance is difficult to have this way

The century, which the opponents of all new media applications like to "CopyPaste" Is at the beginning of academic scholarship. As copyists of sacred texts, the monks of the Middle Ages were unconscious agents of a textual machine, and later victims of the first historical mechanization of a craft. The printing of books brought with it not only an enormous surge in the production of scholarly texts, but above all one thing: a common and unambiguous frame of reference for all further scholarship.

Pimp my text!

This is manifested not so much in the noble search for truth, but in the goal of publication and thus in the application of a very specific cultural technique: writing. Description is the ideal of all science; especially in the humanities, exactly as much of the world exists as has been made legible by it. Only what is appropriately written in a canonized procedure can be cited and thus legitimately reproduced.

Parasites everywhere

No author begins thereby in each case with zero, but continues the tradition begun once by technical authorities more or less competently. This leads to sometimes bizarre rituals of citation. The criterion here is not the truth of the text, in the sense of criticism, but a tightly woven network of obligations, coincidences and considerations. Most academic publications could hardly be said to be happy to be taken to a desert island – their proverbial dryness makes too obvious the frame of reference within which they must function.

Our world is full of copyists and imitators, they are showered with wealth and fame. Interpreting is more worthwhile than composing, having an opinion on a finished work is more worthwhile than creating one’s own work. The ubel of the time is the flooding of the new by the duplicates, the downfall of the intelligence in the comfort of the ever-same. Production is undoubtedly something rare, it attracts parasites who immediately trivialize it.

Michel Serres: The Parasite, 1980

Specialized fields as well as entire specialized discourses live from the cannibalization of a few canonical texts. The fact that scientific work is also a school of intelligent remixing of such texts is taught in every seminar for scientific work: Quoting according to the Harvard method means already half won for the term paper. Whether there is still an intelligent or even original thought in it is a minor matter. This provokes to take detours and shortcuts in the text production.

Well stolen is half won

Both direct and indirect quotation are inherent parts of remixing. A tiny shift in the fabric of what is culturally acceptable – and the quote becomes plagiarism. But the real faux pas in these ritualized activities is not actually the plagiarism, but its detection. It shows not only an unquestionable misconduct, but a system error. In science, not only is there always an unambiguous quotation – here, by the way, a whole repertoire of forms is possible – but, as a matter of course, there is also stealing. The professor who has the need to plagiarize his students, though I have yet to get to know. However, one hears again and again of traps in which, for example, peer reviewers plagiarized the ideas of colleagues from research proposals or editors from their authors. All this takes place in a gray area of scientific work, where it is difficult to prove. There is a fine line between "Professionals" and the "Newcomers".

The latter know the strategies of "larvatus prodeo" (= masked procedure, according to Descartes) are not good enough, i.e. the tactic of covering traces, which exists between indispensable quotation and deliberate plagiarism. "Professionals" do not plagiarize text passages, but rather usurp topics and entire discourses, and are skilled in the art of paraphrase (the rendering of text passages in the correct sense). The academic system virtually forces those parasites who, without the luxury of their own thoughts as gray "Representative" of their discipline exist as functionaries of the scientific community. "Publish or perish", which is also the merciless imperative for them – publish or perish. So it’s better to publish, even if you can’t think of anything for the next anthology (which will then read accordingly). To quote Michel Serres again: "In the chain of parasites, the last one always tries to take the place of the last one but one." The rule is simple: good plagiarism goes unnoticed and is rewarded, while bad plagiarism is detected and punished.

Cultural technique of remix

Budding cultural and media scientists have a particularly hard time here. They are initiated into their academic activity according to the rules of a culture of transcription – rules that no longer apply unquestioned in their research field. Here, in the digital media landscape, the virtue of the "Remix" as a tightening of the imperative to "Publish". Many stars, artists and authors make a living out of the fact that an unsophisticated young audience no longer recognizes their quotations as such (while the more advanced audience then tends to be more aware of them).a. with Umberto Eco at the so-called irony of the quotation may build). Just as the agents of the culture industry have to keep up with the latest beats, academics have to keep up with what’s hot right now "Discourse" if they want to stay in business. Those who grow up in this culture of permanent remixing will be difficult to convince of the value of critical study of sources. Philology has long become a foreign word.

Then there is the problem of what is technically possible for everyone to have "CopyPaste" also quite pragmatic. As a modern cultural technique, this goes back to Douglas Engelbart, who in 1968 demonstrated to an astonished audience of experts how a passage of text could be marked on a computer screen (using the mouse he had invented) and then reinserted at another point. The principle did not find general application until the end of the 1980s, when the first CD-ROMs with classic texts appeared. Many a scholar saw the academic super-GAU as having occurred, since now every student running around could copy a suitable passage of text from, say, the Nietzsche CD and – without typing it out at all! – could include in his seminar work. The Internet, with the growing number of available texts, has made this problem really virulent.

Basically, it’s about increasing the availability of texts, which is a good thing in itself. The online catch of texts (for example historical texts and wordbooks at textlog.de) does not only exempt from the willkur of a very special type of person who has settled in specialist libraries. It also represents the only practical innovation since the pocket book, which – already printed on newsprint in times of need – proved to be a well-founded catch of the "real" (hardcover, expensive and usually out of print, or gathering dust in professors’ rooms without being borrowed by students).

CopyPaste studies

"CopyPaste" from online texts admittedly does not help against lack of ideas. Incorporating copied text, i.e. not identifying it as a foreign source, is of course a serious breach of the rules. At the Alpen-Adria-Universitat Klagenfurt, a university assistant in the Department of Communication Science was recently dismissed from her employment contract for this very reason, and proceedings are underway to revoke her academic degree. In her diploma thesis, she did not clearly enough mark copied text passages from the Internet as citations, as a self-proclaimed "Plagiarism hunter" from the same department at the University of Salzburg. There are several more traps, and they are beginning to show up especially in the "Newcomers" of the operation to heap.

One may wonder what drives an academic to spend his intellectual energy on such a stalking. Dem "Plagiarism Jager" were posthumously accused of added-value production in their own cause. A good question, however, is what the immediate, bizarre hype about the "Plagiarism-Jager" and "Scandal uncoverer", which was organized by the local press, actually means. The other media reports are churning out, with barely concealed hatred (many journalists are dropouts), a resentment that exists against academics anyway, since somehow one always knew that all the abstract babble at the universities is worthless. There you see it again: everything is just stolen (cf. The Princes).

In the case of the fired assistant, no one has yet asked what is going on with a professor who supervises her work and with an institute that has allowed such an obvious failure of teaching and supervision. Universities, meanwhile, promise the long-fallen professionalization – no, not of training in scientific writing or a revision of teaching, but of plagiarism detection. One begins now to proceed systematically with the help of programs like Turn-it-in. Who knows, maybe the plagiarism hunters have succeeded in occupying a new field of research for themselves and in advancing a position in the chain of parasites – but in a digital scientific culture, do we need the "plagiarism hunters"? "Plagiarism Jager" as a block warden of the online age?

Academic Retro-Logic

The suspicion arises that all the plagiarism-hunting misses the core of the matter. Who today according to the motto "Pimp my Text" searching the Internet for appropriately rooted ingredients to spice up one’s own bland soup, is not quite so wrong. Nota bene: In order to accumulate symbolic capital, not simply every means is right, but it must be allowed to use the latest means of production.

The problem is that printing is mythologized in our culture (cf. the study of Michael Giesecke) and consequently scientific work is subject to a "typographical bias" a distorting factor that consists in the compulsion to write things down. Its ideal of descriptiveness – the production of descriptive data – is also a central scientific myth of Verfugbarmachung. Anyone who has ever tried to do justice to images or sounds in an academic paper knows about this problem. Conversely, universities do not really teach how to cope with the corset of typographical common sense. Instead of courses in scientific writing, one hears only the complaint that there is hardly any reading nowadays. No wonder, if you take a look at the current scientific prose.

But the romantic retro-logic of a scholarship committed to righteous reading – Open the book instead of booting the computer – is no longer valid. Especially not when it comes to the resulting strategy of quality arance in the academic culture of knowledge. Neither prohibition and control are means of such quality arance, nor should student work be put under the general suspicion of plagiarism. What is needed in the academic context is not plagiarism-hunting but

  1. a stronger integration of new media in teaching – and by that I don’t mean replacing mindless slide presentations with equally mindless Power-Point presentations. Rather, the gap between current media practice (multimedia) and the academically traditional ideal (mono-media) needs to be fundamentally reconsidered when – as is currently the case everywhere – new curricula are implemented.
  2. Moreover, the communicative structure that exists in most university settings must be radically questioned. It runs almost exclusively on submitted texts (or texts read aloud in a plenary session). A clean text with correct citation pays more than a good argument and a well-founded, reflected opinion. Maybe it would help if academic teachers would discuss and debate with students more than insisting on stubborn text production.

Quite a long time ago, the German sociologist Max Weber gave the lecture Science as a profession. Even if this was in 1922, a remark from it has not lost its justification until today:

The idea of a dilettante can have scientifically exactly the same or coarser consequences as that of the expert.

Only the firm certainty of the working method distinguishes the achievement of the expert from that of the dilettante, since it is – according to the motto "The idea does not replace the work" – In science, it is always about the possibility of post-control. There is, of course, no viable answer to the question of the meaning of science as a profession; Weber, too, refers to the well-rehearsed means of science, to evidenced rational prerequisites of logic and methodology. But what evidence is this, if not that of a pragmatism, which always offers only those means, which commit themselves also culturally to scientificity?

In other words: With the commitment to typographical knowledge production, the correct citation remains the basis of any scientifically serious argumentation, but the avoidance of such lapses means conversely no guarantee for scientific quality – an admittedly platitudinous insight, which, however, may have escaped plagiarism managers so far.

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