Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. This saying, definitely my own, has a good deal of truth to it. We all benefit from putting our own spin on other people’s ideas. Why then, have we become so hostile to the perfectly decent practice of intellectual poaching?
Nowadays, plagiarism is the ultimate deadly sin, condemning students and lecturers alike to the Ninth Circle of Hell. At the scent of an unacknowledged similarity, the milk toast liberals running academia go from Miss Honey to Miss Trunchbull. A cursory inspection of St Andrews’ good academic practice guidelines demonstrates the seriousness with which universities take this sort of stuff. It doesn’t take long before phrases like ‘Termination of Studies’ and ‘Withdrawal of Degree’ start cropping up. Don’t get me wrong, cheating is obviously not okay, but there’s an insidious conflation going on here. Copying and what I like to call ‘inspired writing’ are not the same.
Though its managers endlessly flout their pseudo-leftist credentials, modern universities have presided over a gross privatisation of knowledge. Ideas have been fortified in a Carnegie-style monopoly, closely guarded by rigid rules of ‘good practice’. To make a claim, one must politely acknowledge their supposed debt to the generic thinker who got there first. This mafioso domination of intellectual thought is cemented by the valorisation of elite journals where ‘proper’ ideas are discussed. In pursuit of recognition, one must play by the rules, jamming up solid, logical prose with tiresome streams of quotations. The one ‘commodity’ academics control, they guard jealously.
This stuffy atmosphere contrasts with historical precedent, where intellectuals blatantly neglected to credit their sources of inspiration. In the past, brainiacs glory-hunted like nobody’s business, expertly denying their connection to some foundational philosophy. Yet this did not stop the Enlightenment or the Renaissance; nor did it lead anyone to believe that their ground-breaking theories emerged in a vacuum. Before the invention of plagiarism software, the pursuit of knowledge was not beset by relentless copying. Or, if it was, it didn’t really matter. In the end, the best ideas won out, naturally emerging as both their significance and relation to existing thought were acknowledged.
Of course, it’s not just that the demonization of plagiarism is unnecessary, it is downright counterproductive. By allowing for the occasional bit of thievery, we actually reduce instances of copying.Harsh referencing rules compel students to scour the literature, noting all their academic debts and limiting the space for original thought. In the end, most essays become a word salad of jargon that weakly summarise the existing academic consensus. Surely a bit of free-flowing analysis is more interesting? In spirit, so-called plagiarised work is often more original than the approved babble churned out by universities.
Whilst we should be allowed to take inspiration from others, we should also be allowed to take inspiration from no one at all. Sometimes, we benefit from intellectual blindspots. Shakespeare is so compelling because his work utterly ignored the classics. His archetypal depictions of the human condition were his own, shedding new light on eternal concerns. Had he, like many of his contemporaries, devoured the existing canon of literature, I doubt he would have made the same impact.
Earlier today, reflecting on the many masterpieces of journalism I have produced, I was struck by a thought: ‘had I earlier known how many excellent things had been in existence for hundreds and thousands of years, I should not have written a line’. There’s definitely something to this. Reading a text before one is truly ready is a dangerous undertaking. It can stifle creativity and atrophy the plant-like growth of perspective. Certainly, many promising brains have been ruined by a teenage flirtation with Nietzsche. Let’s tone down this sacralisation of reading: sometimes good-old creativity is enough.
I support a restoration of the old intellectual state of nature where the best ideas triumphed, and the weakest ones withered away. Scholars of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your literature reviews.
Illustration by Lucy Westenberger