Plagiarism and Us

You are either going to watch a 3 hour and 51 minute long video on YouTube and plagiarism, or you are not, but here goes: I think you should watch Harris Brewis’ video essay, Plagiarism and You(Tube).

Harris is a master of the reveal, so I am not going to spoil the video by describing its contents but yes, the entirety of this almost four-hour video is dedicated to unaccredited work being passed off as one’s own, on YouTube.

And if this immediately makes you think that, wow, this sounds like what services like Chat-GPT does, you are correct. What I came to understand from watching this video is this moment is the last possible time for hbomberguy to make this because we are in the waning days in which we can check a person’s writing for plagiarism. This is because of two reasons: first, creators can now effortlessly re-work existing material and secondly, because older text is disappearing from the internet and/or becoming increasingly difficult to find with search engines because of… effortlessly reworked material.

When algorithms financially reward those who generate content with advertising revenue, there are very real incentives to create lots of content that require minimal time and effort to assemble. As Parker Molloy so eloquently put it, the Internet is going to become beset with generation loss.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, generation loss3 is the idea that you lose a little bit of quality from the original with each subsequent copy of something. If you photocopy a document, the copy will be of marginally lower quality than the original; if you photocopy the copy, it’ll be even further from the original. With each passing generation, you lose more of the original. You know, copies of copies of copies.

YouTube Plagiarism and Generation Loss: Keep making copies of copies of copies. The Present Age. Parker Molloy, Dec 4, 2023

What makes Brewis’ video so emotionally compelling is that his focus is not on algorithms and generative ai tools but solely on people and their choices. He builds one particular through-line in the almost four hours of his video essay: serial plagiarists hold utter contempt for other people and for their creative work. He is outraged over this. And if you have ever have spent any amount of time agonizing over word choices, being worked up about verb tenses, having to do re-writing, responding to peer review, engaging in editing, and fretting over word counts, you will be outraged too.

Writing is time consuming. Publishing your writing makes you vulnerable. In almost all cases, writing is not financially rewarding. But writing is personally rewarding, deeply personal, and helps you discover who you are as a person. Writing allows you to join writing communities and some of these creative communities exist on YouTube. These groups of people learn from each other and like Harris does, they do the work to support each other.

And why should librarians worry about plagiarism on YouTube?

To answer this question, I will choose to return to Barbara Fister’s information literacy, writing instruction, and the problem of stochastic parrots again (I’ve added the bold for emphasis):

Two concepts that seem important but are too often overlooked are first, understanding the underlying ethical moves and commitments that characterize good honest work, whether it’s science, journalism, or an informative TikTok, and second, understanding how information systems shape our experiences, especially now that we no longer simply seek information, it seeks us.

Image of a man in a lab coat with burn marks on it, in front of wallpaper.

The caption reads, 'is a very academic-sounding problem'

Harris also answers this question, in his own way at the 3:35:31 mark:

I think a lot of people are inclined to protect creators they like on the grounds that plagiarism is a very academic-sounding problem, like something that happens in research papers or journalism not something that you can do in a silly video made for entertainment purposes.

Why are we holding YouTubers to “standards?” That would be like expecting accurate history from someone whose name has “historian” in it. Because YouTubers often project a sense of being scrappy, do-it-yourself amateurs, it feels almost wrong to expect them to be professional but a lot of them are professionals, regardless how authentic their persona might be. YouTubers are now among the most recognizable faces on the planet and have become immensely wealthy doing this. Some are so influential we literally call them influencers. Maybe it’s a good idea to have some standards for not stealing. Maybe.

I personally don’t like using the word stealing when referring to plagiarism. I do think the phrase that mostly Harris mostly employs in this video is a better choice: erasure.

This suggests to me that academia should re-frame the work of citation as something more than an arduous chore. It is the opposite of erasure. Citation is writing ourselves together in an act of creation.

Thank you Harris Brewis for the inspiration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *