Letter from the Editor: On Plagiarism
Fair warning: this issue's letter from the editor is going to get somewhat darker, and a lot realer than it has in the past. Buckle up.
As was mentioned in our last letter from the editors, putting together each issue of The Fashion Studies Journal presents its own host of challenges for our team. From juggling our editing duties with our teaching, researching, writing, and child-rearing responsibilities (and you know, life), we're a really busy bunch. As we prepared this issue, however, we had to deal with something that we (luckily) rarely encounter: plagiarism. Yes. The dreaded Big P.
Before we get into specifics about what happened, however, I want to make something abundantly clear to anyone who is thinking about writing with us: Writing with us should not be treated as chore or duty! It is something that you should do because you are a passionate and engaged scholar, practitioner, writer, or all around fashion enthusiast. It is something you should do in your spare time as a way to present your thinking to a wide, global community, to open doors, and to test out new ideas. Do it because it brings you joy, not out of some unfounded sense of obligation! Sure, you might be able to add a line to your CV after publishing with us, but remember: We are not a traditional peer-reviewed publication (at least not yet) so your work won't even go toward building up your "AltMetric" scores or add to your "CrossRefs" (whatever those are). FSJ proudly breaks ranks with the high-stakes publish-or-perish model. This a really low-pressure/no-pressure endeavor and should be done for the love of doing fashion research. Nothing more, nothing less!
Now that that's out of the way, here's what happened: Last Saturday morning, I sat down to finish up some last-minute editing before this week's launch. As I dug into a book review, which I had received from a scholar with a full-time research position, I noted that the scholar had seemingly forgotten to provide a citation for a line of text copied verbatim from the book's introduction. I consulted Google Books to try and locate the page number, but, in doing so, realized that the scholar had not only failed to provide a citation for that one sentence; the scholar had copied the book author's chapter synopsis from the introduction line-for-line, word-for-word. It was all there. Laid out in front of me. I was gobsmacked.
In total, at least 95% of the text in the 1,000-word book review had been pulled, without any form of acknowledgement, from the book itself. I highlighted all of the plagiarized text in red. It looked like a Microsoft Word massacre.
For those of us who work in academia as lecturers and professors, plagiarism, unfortunately, has become an all-too-common facet of end-of-semester life. Nearly everyone who's done time at a lectern has war stories about sleeplessly diving into a stack of essays, thirty-deep, only to be bogged down by the soul-sucking process of discovering and then dealing with a plagiarizer. First you have to find the source of the plagiarism, then take note of it, highlighting the plagiarized text within the essay. After that, you set into motion the long and unfulfilling process of punishing the student — which more often than not means a meeting with an academic advisor, which results in gentle slap on the wrist in the form of a chance to rewrite the essay with a small overall deduction (usually about 20%) from the final grade. It's awful, dumb process for everyone involved, but perhaps most so for the teacher who spent upwards of fifteen weeks laboring over lectures, answering midnight emails, and generally giving a damn, only for that hard work to be rewarded by a mountain of bureaucratic bullsh*t and a metaphorical middle finger from the student.
For the uninitiated, here are the seven emotional stages of dealing with a plagiarizer. Walk through it with us:
1. Confusion — At this stage, you are reading an essay when all of a sudden you get a tingle in your hypothalamus, your tiny, primordial lizard brain. Something is not right. There is a decisive, but perhaps barely perceptible shift in the writing. You do a Google search and there it is: the original source text, be it a book, a blog, or a newspaper column. You wonder, What is happening???
2. Disbelief — You've located the text, and the proof is in the pudding: This kid has straight-up copied someone else's words and claimed them as her own. But you still don't believe it. You want to believe in the integrity of your kids. You want to believe that they actually read the plagiarism disclaimer on the first day of class when you spent two hours going through the syllabus. You want to believe in humanity!
3. Anger — Disbelief quickly turns into white hot rage. A high-pitched ringing fills your ears. Your veins pump with adrenaline. You shoot off a text message to your friends and colleagues talking about how you're going to serve justice on a silver platter. You start to highlight the problematic parts of the student's "essay," cross-referencing it with the original text. Sh*t's going down.
4. Incredulity — Fatigue starts to set in once that initial rush of adrenaline wears off. You are numb. You still cannot believe that the student has done this, but the feeling is distinctly different from disbelief per se. This stage involves a lot of face-clutching and head shaking.
5. Triumph — It's done! You've crossed your T's and dotted your I's! The system will take it from here; justice will be served! You do a few celebratory air punches and, begrudgingly, move on to the next essay.
6. Awe & Wonder — The next day, as you recount your harrowing story to friends and colleagues, you are overcome with genuine feelings of awe and wonder. You begin asking yourself things like: How could you do this? What kind of ego do you have to possess in order to think that you can steal the words of [fill in the name of esteemed fashion scholar here] and claim them as your own? Moreover, how did you think you could get away with this???
7. Sadness — This stage is the most difficult and the most persistent. You may feel a slight pang of sympathy for the student ... perhaps even a maternal disappointment. You might begin to make excuses for her. You get it: It's hard to be a student today — what, with all of the exams, papers, and projects, as well as the rather bleak job forecast for today's college students and the mountains of student loan debt she will surely have to scale. You begin to think that in desperate times, anybody could be reduced to the level of plagiarism. You begin to question the whole system.
At the end of the day, dealing with plagiarism is one of, if not the most, enervating and frustrating parts of being a teacher. Luckily, however it's not something we've ever really had to deal with here at FSJ. Rather, we are continually awestruck by the dedication, passion, creativity, and intellect of our global community of writers and practitioners. Through FSJ, we have made friends, forged professional bonds, and grown as writers and thinkers ourselves. For most of us, FSJ is a release from the nonsense of academia, so when something like this comes knocking at our door, it feels distinctly, gut-wrenchingly personal. Indeed, this isn't just about the act of plagiarism itself; it's about what plagiarism symbolizes. It's about a manifest tendency within academia at-large — some might call it ruthlessness — to succeed at all costs, quality-be-damned. It's about a top-down, systemic disregard for academic labor. It's about the fact that we are a relatively small academic community and thus stealing the words of someone only once- or twice-removed feels extra criminal.
In this case, we knew the author of the book in question; she was a friend to some and a respected scholar to all. So when the writer of the book review stole her words, it felt like a collective slap in the face. Even if what she plagiarized was just that boring, mandatory part in every book in which the author lays out what's to come in the chapters ahead, we know that the real author fretted over every single word — maybe even losing a little sleep, growing a few gray hairs, or shedding a few tears. Writing is an embodied process. It takes a mental and physical toll.
There are a number of reasons a person might plagiarize a text, this we do know. There are deadlines, and time crunches, or life might intervene. There are endless ways to measure your capacities as a teacher or researcher, from evaluations, to interviews, to job talks, and hundred-page dossiers. There's the at times unbearable weight of being an academic today — a weight so great it could drive even the greatest minds to borrow a thought here or to forget to reference there. It's infuriating to catch a plagiarizer, but it's also sad. We've all been there — staring at a throbbing cursor and a blank white page, unable to put pen to paper. Desperate. Stressed.
None of these, however, is a valid excuse to steal someone else's intellectual property. Ever.
Indeed, for those of us working in this field, it can at times feel like we are facing an uphill battle against a system that does not support us and does not value our labor, neither intellectual nor emotional. The corporatization of academia has paid a devastating toll on the least-compensated and most disposable individuals who, in number, comprise that very system's foundation. Every day, we see our peers, friends, and colleagues fighting for table scraps — piecing together freelance lives like chainmail, struggling to secure full-time work, trading the social for suffocating solitude, agonizing over every word, and losing way too much sleep over course prep, paper writing, and peer reviews.
We should therefore be lifting one another up, standing on the shoulders of giants, growing our networks, and taking roads less followed. We should not be claiming others' words, others' labor, or others' intellectual property as our own. There are bigger fish to fry! Fashion studies is a field of study that is very much still in-becoming. Frankly, there's too much f*cking work to be done for all this plagiarism nonsense, guys!
For those of you who read this far, thank you. Much of this has been on our chests for a while — a perennial topic of conversation in our editorial meetings — and even though the circumstances that led to me writing this letter (out of a fit of rage, out of a need for catharsis) are less than ideal, I am happy to have an opportunity to reiterate the core missions at FSJ: To cultivate community, to build one another up, and to bolster good research.
In this issue, you will find a whole lot of that goodness. I won't drone on about it here though; rather, I encourage you to just settle in and read and discover at your own pace. As you do, however, we the editors ask that please you take an extra special moment to acknowledge the authors of each essay, as well as to appreciate the physical and mental labor that went into writing them. We're all in this together, and we all work damn hard!
In strength and solidarity,
Lauren and the rest of the FSJ Editorial Team (August 2, 2017)
This issue is dedicated to Tansy Stowell—an integral member of the Parsons MA Fashion Studies community who tragically lost her life on July 27, 2017.