Upon returning from the Jamestown colony to London in 1611, William Strachey went to Shakespeare’s newest play The Tempest. It didn’t take him long to realize that the play was based on his own notes of the sinking of the ship Sea Venture off the coast of Bermuda in 1609. His unpublished account of this adventure must have somehow gotten into Shakespeare’s hands.
Shakespeare was a great borrower of ideas at a time when not much was made of it. He profited from this ability. Strachey died a pauper although he has since gained recognition from scholars for his work, A True Repertory of the Wreck and Redemption…from the Islands of the Bermudas and its influence on Shakespeare.
Many others have followed or preceded Shakespeare’s footsteps as borrowers of the ideas of others over the millennia. Recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got the concept for his now famous social network from an earlier brainchild of fellow Harvard students the Winklevoss twins; they weren’t pleased and sued in twentieth century fashion. He paid them off eventually with $65 million.
Within the last month, why did the current German Minister of Defense, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg forfeit his job? Simply, he copied large sections of his dissertation from other sources without recognizing them. It isn’t illegal to plagiarize in the strict sense of the law. You can’t go to jail for it; but you may get sued. You may lose your job.
In academic circles it is considered a moral offence. My son attended a university in Wisconsin where the students were taught to write at the bottom of every test and assignment that the work they were submitting was entirely their own under the premise that cheating actually allows the cheater to advance at the expense of fellow students. It is a fairness issue. The university felt that this honor code promoted trust and openness in the community.
AISC has an academic honesty policy that is signed every year by our students. They learn that IB candidates can lose their diploma if they plagiarize. They learn that cutting and pasting information that they find through Google searches into their essays and research assignments can be easily identified by a new program that the school now uses called Turnitin. They learn about the importance of citations.
I believe that to be able to craft your own ideas is a worthwhile pursuit even beyond the issues of morality and fairness, the pain of lawsuits and job loss. Reading about what others believe, recognizing your debt to them through citations, then thinking about what you believe and sharing these ideas with others may open collaborative pathways to innovative, even revolutionary ideas and creative works like The Tempest and Facebook. In the end, all ideas, yours and mine are just links in the chain.