The Slippery Slope with Symbolic Signs

Students who are caught plagiarizing often say:

  • "I couldn't say it better, so that's why I used a lot of the author's words."
  • "I'm showing respect for the author by using her words instead of my own."
  • "I didn't even know I was plagiarizing. What's that?"
  • "Who cares? Lots of people plagiarize."

And here's what some teachers say to their students:

  • "If you really understood what the author meant, you would be able to say it in your own words," or "You're just lazy (as a writer)."
  • "You should show respect by not plagiarizing, and instead give credit to your sources."
  • "Really? Then you need to learn about plagiarism, and then don't do it."
  • "I care! You get a zero on your paper for plagiarizing."

Why is original writing so hard?

Ambiguity of meaning

After five decades of observing these kinds of conversations going on in higher education between myself, my colleagues and our students, I often think: "Watch out for that slippery slope with symbolic signs." Actually, I don't think those exact words, but I have concluded that the overarching issue is deriving meanings of words (symbolic signs) we use in speaking and writing. To write well about other people's ideas, we must first adequately comprehend the likely meanings of what they say before we write about it.

Consider this simple sentence: "Time flies like an arrow." (n.d., Analysis of the basic ambiguities). Does this string of symbolic signs mean:

  1. The passage of time is fleeting, much like an arrow shot from an archer's bow?
  2. There are giant termites from the future, called 'time flies,' which prefer to eat an archer's wooden arrow?
  3. Measure the speed of flies as you would measure the speed of an arrow shot from an archer's bow?

So which interpretation is likely to capture the writer's intended meaning? When taken out of context, it's hard to tell. See Wikipedia for more examples.

Unclear connections between signs and what they represent

Charles Sanders Peirce spent much of his life trying to develop a theory of signs and how we derive meaning from iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs. Here's what he wrote in the late 1800s, later published in 1932 in an edited collection of his papers:

A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity…. every representamen being thus connected with three things, the ground, the object, and the interpretant (2:228)…. The Sign can only represent the Object and tell about it. It cannot furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that Object; for that is what is meant in this volume by the Object of a Sign; namely, that with which it presupposes an acquaintance in order to convey some further information concerning it (2:231, emphasis added).

I believe that this is the fundamental problem with writing and speaking: we do not know what we are talking about when we are unclear about the connection between the signs we use and what those signs represent. We should improve our methods of education to help reduce this disconnection problem, briefly summarized here (from Frick, 2023b).

It is hard to write about other people's ideas in your own words if you do not understand their ideas clearly.

If you just parrot their words without appropriate acknowledgment, you not only commit plagiarism, but you are also not thinking critically.

Copying, pasting, rearranging, and substituting synonyms of words other people write is an indicator of failure to understand their ideas. If you write this way, then you do not advance your own learning. You waste your time, and you waste the time of those who may read this kind of junk (see R U a Dupe?). And if someone starts questioning critically this kind of writing, then you just won't know what you're talking about and could be really embarrassed when your bluff is called.

Next: Cases of Plagiarism and their Consequences