Poison, Plagiarism and Time Travel


Why you should avoid ‘borrowing’ paragraphs from the internet.

I’ve been seeing a lot more plagiarism lately, with people lifting whole chunks of their essays from web pages without acknowledgement. Partly I think this is due to time pressures: people at the moment are juggling a lot, and sometimes they resort to short-cuts. Partly it’s down to lack of confidence in their own words. Sometimes, though, I think they genuinely don’t understand what a bad idea it is. So…

Let me explain.

Plagiarism always reminds me of the shell game from The Princess Bride, in which Vizzini (who claims to be brilliant) tries to outwit the Man in Black by figuring out which cup the poison is in.

(In this scenario, I am the Man in Black. Obviously.)

If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes to watch it. It’s worth it just for the reference to Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.

When people take material from a web page and integrate it into their essay, they’re engaging in a battle of wits with the marker, which mostly they don’t win. They very often fail to match the formatting – so the ‘borrowed’ section tends to be a different colour, or a slightly different font, or a different size, or has different line-spacing. It’s like waving a big flag that says ‘These Are Not My Own Words’.

Even if they remember to match the formatting – and if their problem is that they’re short of time, this usually doesn’t happen – they rarely manage to match the style. So an essay with lots of contractions (that’s, he’s etc) suddenly becomes much more formal; punctuation errors suddenly vanish for the duration of a paragraph, and so on.

In other words, it’s usually very easy to spot material that people didn’t write themselves. Plagiarism, unlike iocaine powder, is not odourless and tasteless. And even if a marker were to miss it, assignments are run through an automated system that detects it.

But what if someone is smarter than that? What if someone with a dizzying intellect DOES manage to sort out the formatting issues, tweak the style to fit their own, and adapt the content to the point where the automatic system doesn’t pick it up? Could happen, right?

Yes. It could, and it does. Sometimes people are just that good at it.

But then they run into the other problem, which is that no matter how you move the cups around, plagiarism is poison.

Let me give you an example of a Classic Blunder.

I came across this the other day, as I was skulking around the internet. It’s a fridge magnet which you can buy on Amazon.

Painful punctuation aside, it’s a nice little quotation from Horace, who wrote a book called The Art of Poetry, and often advised against excessive wordiness. I love a bit of Horace.

I also love Tacitus, who was, as Horace points out, much famed for his brevity. However… much though I like the idea of the two of them sitting in a dining room together having a chat about writing styles, I have a sneaking suspicion that this didn’t happen – for the simple reason that Tacitus was born about 65 years after Horace died. The only way Horace could have commented on Tacitus’ writing is if one (or both) of them had been time travellers.

(My money’s on Tacitus, for what it’s worth. I can’t see Horace enjoying time travel.)

So how did the mix-up happen, and where did the quotation actually come from? Well, I asked around on the internet, and was informed that it came from the notebook of a chap called Lichtenberg. It seems that on some online lists of quotations, this quotation about brevity comes immediately after a genuine Horace quotation about brevity (these lists are often in alphabetical order) and somebody somewhere must have attached the wrong name to the quotation.

But why does this matter? Who cares about a fridge magnet?

Well, it’s not just the fridge magnet. Here are some of the results from a quick image search:

The same quotation, all over the internet, always attributed to poor Horace, who didn’t much enjoy travelling in space let alone in time. No discussion, no links, no fact-checking – just the same error endlessly repeated. You can even get it on a T-shirt.

No, I’m not kidding. Look…

This is just one little quotation, easily established as false. But my point is, and I’ll say it louder for the people at the back…


*I’m sorry – what was that you said? Irony? Of course not*

So no matter how much people move the cups around, or how clever they are at figuring out how to hide what they’re doing, the fact remains that the material they’ve borrowed is probably not very good. In some cases, it may be spectacularly bad. The only way to guard against picking up such material and inadvertently poisoning yourself is to do the research, and write only what you know.

This all boils down to the simple fact that plagiarism is bad. Whatever the reason for doing it, and however unintentional it is, it can backfire in all kinds of nasty ways. So try to avoid picking up material from random websites; use reputable sources only, and make it clear how and where you’re using them.