The Integrity of the Provenance of Ideas: Archimedes and His Burning Mirror

In this fine illustration of Archimedes and his Burning Mirror by Giulio Parigi (1599), we have a perfect and clear example of how plagiarism operates — and no one escapes this theft of the provenance of ideas able-bodied and unscorched:  The sun is the original source, the mirror is the plagiarizer and the burning ship is the aftereffect of the illicit deed after a burning exposure.


When a student decides to plagiarize, there is little defense against the deed except to try to claim ignorance, even though that escape will not succeed.

I didn’t know I couldn’t copy and paste!” is the dying cry of the caught student, but anyone that attends school or teaches students knows your ideas must be your own and any inspirations must be made clear in the text.

What many students fail to realize is their hard work of finding a source for their research topic is precisely what they are supposed to be doing and they could earn great respect and credit if they would only just take the next logical step and acknowledge their original source and then provide their own take on the text they’re quoting.  That’s how research is built.  That’s how new ideas are formed on the backs of initial arguments.

Unfortunately, many students do the quoting part right, but they fail to tell us where they found that information.  It’s pretty easy to identify plagiarized passages because the rhythm, cant and voice of the student suddenly shifts into a colder, more wanton, scholarly, timbre.

Google is a fine resource for quickly finding stolen passages.

I always warn my students, “If you can use Google, so can I.”  When I see some eyes alight that they won’t use Google, but rather another search engine, I continue, “If you can find it on the Internet, so can I.”  The fire of theft in their eyes is extinguished.

Plagiarism is not a difficult concept to comprehend and the example is quite clear:  Either you copied or you did not.  It doesn’t matter if you copied a few words or an entire paragraph.  If the text you used in your paper is not filtered through your own mind and changed by your own thoughts, then you have plagiarized.

If you use someone else’s words and pass them off as your own original thought without crediting the first mind — then you have plagiarized — and if you’re in a university setting, you will especially be caught and your instructor is especially required to prosecute you in order to maintain the integrity of the provenance of ideas.

Students usually think if they get caught plagiarizing, the result will be a light switch that will be flipped on to illuminate them — naked and red-handed — in dark room and the instructor will yell, “Surprise!  We caught you!”

The student then expects to recant, and apologize and hope all will be forgiven.

That isn’t how it works.

Prepare to be burned.

When a student gets caught plagiarizing — yes, a switch is flipped on — but the switch isn’t hooked to a lightbulb, but rather to a fiery machine belching smoke and flames, and that machine will not stop burning the student into ash until the entire process is complete.

Plagiarism cases are easy to prove and impossible to deny:  Original Text vs. Plagiarized Text — and there’s no hiding from the duplication.  The university machine then begins the student scorching process that might take a week or six months.

The end result is necessary, but never pleasing, and it leaves behind a scar.

Punishments are always handed down as the machine of the university grinds the student into dust.  Sometimes the punishment is an immediate failure of the course.  Some universities expel the student.

Nothing good comes out of an unrecognized copy and paste, yet many students are still tempted by the easy way out, and they relinquish their good intentions and their honest minds for the temporary delight of merely meeting a deadline — even though their job was to create new thinking in their paper.

A really great research paper is filled with quotes from other sources, and if you not only give credit to those sources, but also pit them against each other by providing your own thoughts on the argument, then you will have written a truly extraordinary paper filled with passion and magnitude because you created original thought no one can deny and everyone can respect: A new pathway for exploration of the provenance of your ideas invites us to follow your bright lead back into the sun.

16 comments

  • When I was in college, one of my biggest problems was that a lot of the research articles I needed were for some reason hard to find. What I realized was that many of the articles I did find had a lot of citations to articles I couldn’t find and since the classes usually had an arbitrary required number of citations, I would quote a couple of the things quoted in the articles and attributed them to their original source articles.

  • Gordon!
    So you didn’t read all the citations you cited?

  • For whatever reason the RU library didn’t have the sources but I felt that the citations contained the thrust of the author’s argument. If it weren’t for having to have a certain number of items in the bibliography I would have just stuck to what I could find but alas…

  • Yikes!
    So how did you argue against citations you were not able to read?

  • I think I’m explaining this badly. It worked something like this. Imagine this is part of a real article:
    In his article Theories of Excellent Tea, Sir Edward Wingealot argued,

    Darjeeling is the best tea ever. I love it and I would recommend it to all of my friends.

    We therefore see that even a knight thinks that Darjeeling is good.
    I would then write something like this in my own paper:
    Even Sir Edward Wingealot felt that Darjeeling was an excellent tea. He wrote about it in an article entitled, Theories of Excellent Tea:

    I love [Darjeeling Tea] and I would recommend it to all of my friends.

    I also had a tendency to use citations to help prove a point, not to argue against them. :) I hope that’s more clear.

  • So, Gordon, were you reading the entire text you were citing, or were you only pulling out quotes that a second text cited and then inserting those “third party” quotes in your paper?
    I understand citations can be used to support an argument — I just find the more interesting papers argue against traditionally cited thinking. SMILE!

  • Unfortunately I could not get the entire text most of the time – a lot of the journals that contained my quotations were offline only and, of course, not available at the library.
    Strangely, we were regularly encouraged to stick to the support citation. :)

  • That’s pretty wild, Gordon! I know the NJIT library will go to the ends of the world to order/borrow/get/buy any source a student needs in order to properly read, cite and do research.

  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David,
    It reminded me of a Harvard story – Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel was found eerily similar to two other novels.
    Sad.
    http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=512948
    I really enjoyed University of Wisconsin’s library, amd UMN too!

  • That’s it, Katha! Plagiarism comes in many forms and has many fathers… and mothers!
    University libraries — virtual or not — are an important feature for all students to explore and exploit!

  • David,
    perhaps the internet now is a great deterrent to plagiarism?
    Now that we can find pretty much all that has been written and thought throughout human history with a search engine.

  • That could be, Dananjay, but the internet also makes it much easier to copy and paste to plagiarize. In the older days you actually had to re-type the information from the source and it was easier to redact and summarize in your own words.
    Sites like Turn It In are doing big business using technology to hunt down plagiarism for instructors. Students upload their papers directly to the site and the machines go to work on it! SMILE!
    http://www.turnitin.com/static/home.html

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