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.