Monday, January 12, 2009

No Honor Among Thieves?

What about among writers?

Writers don't just misbehave when it comes to Holocaust memoirs (Misha Defonseca, Herman Rosenblat), or Christmas tales (Neale Donald Walsch), or memoirs of addiction (James Frey), or accounts of growing up white in a poor black foster family (Margaret B. Jones). Don't kid yourself that these famous examples are just a few rotten apples. The truth is, the basket is filled with stinky, fermenting, rotten apples. A good portion of what you're reading on the Internet, and--if you teach--the papers that you are receiving from your students are also fakes, rip-offs, hoaxes, straight-out plagiarism.

Recent ads on freelance sites:

*I have a book, about 100 pages. I want you to go through the book and edit it down to about 75 pages, to make an e-book. You have to change the wording. You will do the first ten pages. If it passes Copyscape, you will do the rest.

*I need a paper edited and re-written. There are comments from the professor on the paper, and you will have to do what those comments say. (BTW, this person had posted 30-plus jobs of this sort. Sounds to me like she's buying her way through a degree program.)

*I have a novel. I want you to edit it. And some parts of it are taken directly from Dorian Gray. I want you to re-word those parts so they're not in Oscar Wilds (sic) words."

*I need a dissertation, media studies. I need you to formulate the topic, then I will approve it, and if it is okay, then you will write the paper.

No, I am not kidding. And this doesn't even begin to describe all the people who have 10, 50, 100 "Internet" articles that they want the "wording" changed on. It would be hilarious if it weren't so sad. If I am seeing these ads every day on the three or four sites I visit, how many does that total up to over a week, a year? I actually feel a little bit dirty when I run across these things, like I've been looking at porn sites.

People have always gotten other people to do their work for them, I know. People have always paid other people to write their papers, people have always tried to pass off stolen fiction as their own . But it's so blatant, so shameless. I could actually make a living doing this. Doing nothing but helping others get past Copyscape. Over the weekend, I was offered $200 to write a graduate-level paper on Marx. That would have covered my kitten's next vet visit, something I've been struggling to figure out how I'm going to cover, and I was tempted. I considered it. I took a semester-long course in Marx as an undergrad. I know his biography, I know his work. I have a Master's degree in Russian history. I could pretty much do Marx in my sleep, even the whole philosophical/intellectual antecedents thing. (Feuerbach, anyone?)

But I said no. Does that make me stupid? Naive? Old-fashioned? I just couldn't do it. I had planned on being a history professor before life intervened with other plans, and I have this honor-code thing in my DNA. I know how hard school can be, how overwhelming. I remember being so stressed out and exhausted that I thought my eyeballs were going to fall out. But I did my own work. Always. (Or took my lumps when I didn't.) And I think other people should do the same.

And, I can't bring myself to bid on or even consider taking these article- and book- "re-wording" jobs. I know what I'm really being asked to do. I'm being asked to behave unethically. I'm being invited to take the easy road, to make some money by simply "reworking" someone else's work.

And the truth is, I worry what this means for our culture, what it bodes for our country. What does it mean when you haven't done the work that got you that college degree? What does it mean when the same (wrong or bad) information just gets recycled and reworded and moved here and there, appearing a in variety of places, and thus seems to be coming from independent sources? Oh wait, I think we have at least one example of this to ponder, don't we? Iraq.