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Power Plagiarism

One of my many jobs is supervising maths homework. At the top of each exercise sheet is the command to ‘Show all working out’.

I was thinking about this when reflecting about the common failure within academia to show the traces of our work, the lines that connect us to our reading, to learning as an ongoing practice, often discarded in the struggle to rise to the top of the sinking ship of the neoliberal academy where, on the upper deck, there is room for only a few.

I was listening to my favourite podcast this morning, Surviving Society. Chantelle Lewis was in conversation with the authors of the Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought, Rafeef Ziadah and Brenna Bhandar. Speaking of the revolutionary feminists who had advanced feminist, antiracist and class struggle, Rafeef Ziadah remarked,

There has a historical amnesia around the role of many scholars of colour and particularly revolutionary feminists who had really advanced our thinking… In academia we are very much always pushed to do individualised work, to say I had this idea just on my own, no one ever helped me to develop it. Here we were doing exactly the opposite. We were saying, we all build on each other, there’s very wide shoulders that we stand on and we want to be having these conversations…

One of the ways in which the erasure of these building blocks is through what the formal literature on plagiarism calls ‘source-based plagiarism’. This can happen in on of two ways:

Plagiarism may occur because of the different types of sources. For example, when a researcher references a source that is incorrect or does not exist, it is a misleading citation. Plagiarism also occurs when a researcher uses a secondary source of data or information, but only cites the primary source of information.

I am interested in the second form of source-based plagiarism, underlined above. But I have a different name for it in the context I am thinking of: Power Plagiarism. The role of power in plagiarism has already been recognised. Most commonly it occurs when someone in a position of power, a professor for example, uses the work of a student and passes it off as their own.

But that is not what I am concerned with here. The source-based power plagiarism I want to address is when a work of scholarship is used to inform someone’s work, but when the trace of that work is erased and only the primary source cited by the work consulted are used by the author. However, while this might certainly happen in the classical student situation, power plagiarism comes into play when this is done as a deliberate form of erasure and to enable power hoarding within a given field.

To be concrete about the phenomenon I am describing, in practice it takes the form of a text which cites the same sources as already published work to draw similar conclusions as that work while not citing it directly, in other words, not ‘showing all working out’. This is sometimes made more petty by a reference thrown in to a random work by the author of the work consulted but not cited, but not the actually relevant work which has been partially replicated via the secondary sources used.

When this happens in the context of peer review, it is a dangerous game. It has happened to me, not once, to receive a paper for peer review and to find source-base plagiarism of my own work. In this case, the issue is easily weeded out through the process of peer review. It has been enlightening to find out, after the paper has been published, who engages in this practice: not once this has turned out to be a well-established colleague who, to put it bluntly, should know better.

However, another way source-base plagiarism happens is in non-peer reviewed work such as reports, and increasingly on social media, where it is basically unverifiable because the audience is not well-versed in the literature. Source-based plagiarism of this kind becomes power plagiarism when it is used to establish a scholar or group of scholars as at the vanguard of a field. It is particularly effective when those doing the power plagiarism are insiders and those being erased are considered outsiders or interlopers who do not deserve recognition.

Yet another way this is compounded is through the self-aggrandisement of those doing the power plagiarising as belonging to ‘the grassroots’, while those whom they power plagiarise are out of touch ‘theorists’. This phenomenon is particularly interesting to note when those making such claims use the work of the very theorists whose work appears in the work of those they oppose to diminish that work in a cack-handed attempt at populism all while sitting on positions of academic power and privilege. As the popular saying goes, ‘you couldn’t make it up!’ The failure to pick up on these obvious inconsistencies by others allows these claims to solidify into truth and play up division.

Rather than power hoarding, marginalised fields like critical race/race critical studies should be built on collaboration, where, as Rafeef Ziadah says, ‘we all build on each other’ and, as she and Brenna Bhandar discuss later on, there is conflict that is constructive, rather than destructive.

The study of race is ultimately the study of the operations of power in the modern colonial era. When our practices of scholarship mirror power structures, rather than working together with others to dismantle them, we are disabled in our already sisyphusean work.

Alana Lentin