Prep-Sharing and Intellectual Property in Debate

Prep-Sharing and Intellectual Property in Debate
Article by Christian Tarsney

A couple weekends back, in the first flight of an elimination round I judged at Harvard, a debater read a case in front of me 80 percent of which came verbatim from a position I’d written more than five years ago for the last domestic violence topic. The student was someone I had never met, had no connection with, and certainly had never given permission to use material I had produced. And the case itself, despite (a very few) cosmetic changes, was still quite clearly written for the old topic—with an entire framework of arguments about justice and “justification,” rather than moral permissibility, for instance. I was sufficiently annoyed and insulted by what happened that, rather than giving an RFD at the end of the round, I spent about five minutes chewing the debater out for running the case, and made my decision on the basis of that choice rather than any argument on the flow. (I should note that I’ve since received a very contrite letter of apology from the debater in question, which I appreciated.)

Before I could really savor my moment of righteous outrage, however, I was reminded of the fuzziness of the ethical boundaries which govern these sorts of practices in debate: in the second flight of the same round, I saw an AC which contained two or three analytic arguments, copied from another case I’d written on a different topic the same year, five seasons back. These particular arguments, in fact, were ones I’ve seen lifted several times in the past without particularly minding. It struck me as interesting that I was so intuitively offended by the behavior of the first debater, but not at all by the second.

I would guess that most people who have been coaching (and writing arguments) in LD for any length of time have had similar experiences—though hopefully not too many as extreme as the first. Over the last couple years, however, “prep-sharing” between teams and between debaters had become so much more extensive and widespread that the (albeit vague) ethical limits on acceptable use of other people’s work have been stretched and (in some cases, I would claim) simply and egregiously broken.

It’s worth asking, therefore, what these limits ought to be, and how they should be policed. By the standards of academia, even (what debaters tend to regard as) relatively benign practices, like copy-pasting a couple sentences of analytic arguments, would count as fairly serious ethical lapses. If academic standards for crediting other people’s work were to be rigorously applied in current, national-circuit LD, it would either drastically slow down the diffusion of cards and arguments, or result in cases overflowing with credits to a menagerie of coaches and debaters. (What percentage of teams running metaethical frameworks, for instance, have found and cut all their framework cards themselves?) Perhaps this would be a good thing—it is, after all, a little strange that even basically well-intentioned debaters might go into rounds with no idea who originally cut a given card or wrote a given argument in their case, and I’ll admit that a certain petty part of me finds it annoying that debaters might be winning rounds on arguments I wrote, without anyone involved knowing where they come from. But there’s no question that, by this point, stuffing the genie back in the bottle presents a bit of a challenge.

A more modest hope is to develop a set of minimal, agreed-upon norms for what sorts of exchanges and appropriations are seen as acceptable, which could be made to correspond to real incentives for debaters in the form of collective censure or disapproval for those who break them. Here are three questions on which, as far as I can tell, there is not at the moment any solid agreement, and where settled norms might be helpful:

(1) Is it ever acceptable to use someone’s writing in a case without their (explicit/direct) permission and without credit or citation? If so, how much and under what conditions?

(2) What about cards? Is it generally acceptable for debaters to just copy-paste cards from someone else’s prep, do they have to redo the internal cutting, or do they have to return to the original source and find/cut the card from scratch?

(3) What sorts of obligations do debaters have to verify the origins of prep they’re using in rounds? When debaters or teams are exchanging prep, is it enough for them to simply take each others’ word that they have permission to share everything they’re sharing?

There’s room for reasonable difference of opinion on these questions, but it does seem to me that at least this much should be clear: Debaters should never read a position in round (meaning, a case, DA, CP, kritik, theory shell, philosophical off-case position, etc.) unless they (i) know who wrote it and (ii) have that person’s permission, at least indirectly, to be reading it. Taking someone else’s position and adding arguments to it, or changing words here and there, does not give you any more right to run it than you had at the outset. And with respect to these sorts of appropriations, mistakes are not generally exculpating—debaters (and coaches) must do their due diligence, if they want to run positions that they themselves have not produced, and simply grabbing a case off a shared dropbox where there’s some nominal commitment to avoiding plagiarism does not count as due diligence. (This also means that debaters/coaches should not see themselves as automatically at liberty to “share” prep they haven’t produced—something you didn’t write should not be included in an exchange with someone else, unless you have the explicit permission of the person who did write it.) Finally, stealing entire positions and reading them without permission should not be regarded as something merely questionable or borderline. It is on a par, I would suggest, with other (much less common) forms of cheating in debate, like fabricating evidence. The same sort of stigma ought to attach in the eyes of the debate community, so that there’s a penalty for plagiarism which goes beyond the outcome of a single round.

One last thought: Over the last several years, quite a bit has been said about openness and transparency in debate. Certain forms of openness, at least, are obviously desirable in debate, especially given the current competitive structure of the LD circuit: for instance, debaters who did well at the TOC posting the positions they read as examples for up-and-coming debaters to look at. However, nothing is more antithetical to any form of openness in debate than the thought that people may simply appropriate anything that’s put online for themselves without permission. If we want a debate community in which people feel free to help each other and do things which are good for the community at large, it’s important that we stop doing things that actively punish and discourage openness. How to disincentivize these choices is a difficult question, but it’s one that we need to take seriously if we have the educational and competitive health of the activity.

  • Perhaps my viewpoint on this issue will be controversial.  I hope not.  Or at least I hope you give a different perspective a try for a moment.

    My opinion on all “intellectual property” issues is fairly radical, but unlike music or film, copying cards or analytics or even full cases for debate is far less difficult or complex than recording an identical version of a song and claiming royalties for it.

    When constructing cases, especially later in the season for that topic, revisions seem to get smaller and smaller.  Blocks are expanded and reworded based on comments and trial-and-error.  Imagine if we had one topic to debate for not just the whole year, but for your entire debate career: eventually, we would all know every possible case position, every possible response, every response to that response, et cetera.  Now of course, I may be exaggerating – and the logistics of such a concept is irrelevant; this is merely a thought experiment – and that situation will not happen to the maximum degree, but we see smaller examples quite frequently (i.e. We know what everyone’s running on Jan/Feb by the time the ToC rolls around)

    Now, the purpose of this example is to beg the question: is there such a thing as a perfect block, case, or even argument?  
    Considering the obvious fact that debate – despite our MJPs and requests for “Tab” judging – is an activity that appeals to different factors that will pan out differently on each pair of ears, may imply that such a thing cannot exist.  However, the habits and practices of students and coaches seems to show that all skilled competitors nevertheless strive for the “perfect case” or block either way.
    We want our statements to be as persuasive as possible, to the most amount of judges as possible.

    That said, I think that the idea of intellectual debate property is counterproductive.  Perhaps we can establish the norm of crediting case writers/collaborators (even putting names in header-footers would suffice) but beyond that, I think that we would be taking offense to something that doesn’t really matter.

    Let’s examine an unlikely possibility: two debaters who have never seen each other before and are connected in no way (their coaches have never traded any type of information, they’ve never shared information with people at camp, etc.) and they hit each other in a preliminary round at a tournament like Harvard.  The Affirmative’s case is identical – word for word – to the Negative’s AC that is currently hidden away in their expando.  If they were to take their cases out, every word of the text would be the same, except the font is different, the names are different, the highlighting is in a different color, etc.  Does this mean that one debater stole material from the other?  In this example, no.  It’s impossible.  By mere, extreme coincidence, two teams constructed two identical positions and selected the same combination of words in the English language.
    Consider a less extreme example: the same debaters have an identical response to an argument in their blox.  Seems a little more likely that it wasn’t plagiarism, but if we adopt this “I wrote that” mindset, we have reason to get upset.

    Obviously, debaters probably don’t write identical cases out of extreme coincidence.  But that’s because our circuit is (fortunately) not so closed-off and close-minded as to prevent case sharing, card sharing, and national alliances.  Identical blocks will always exist, and so will these cases.  But I’m having real trouble seeing why this is a bad thing.

    Competitors and coaches attempt to make those “perfect blocks” and cases.  When you cut a card in just the right way, it seems appropriate to paste it into your next case about a similar issue.  It seems fair that teammates can do that with one another.  But why is it all-of-a-sudden bad when students who aren’t from the same team do it?  We all are attempting to do the same thing – convince the judge in as few words as possible – so why not collaborate to make the boring part (prep) easier, and the more interesting part (the actual debate) longer?

    It seems that the only problem being presented is the emotion that a judge or student or coach or whoever’s watching the round gets when they figure out that an argument, block or case is identical to their own.  Our initial (or at least for many) reaction is the anger Christian describes in this essay.  We get frustrated, we assume the worst, and it may cloud our decision-making.  But – and I will extend this statement to nearly every aspect of debate – we should NEVER allow those knee-jerk feelings to get in the way of this activity.
    Even if a student copied your case from years back, how do we know it was their fault that the case was re-done?  (A poor coach, lazy teammate, or camp roommate could have given them the case and claimed it was their own)  And even if it was their fault, what’s the harm in reusing arguments the same way a student reuses Kant cards or Due Process blocks?

    I think we would be setting an arbitrary precedent if we attempted to combat this “issue”.  The real problem is our inability to evaluate the round based solely on what is spoken (i.e. not letting those initial gut-feelings get in the way of your thinking).  I’m not saying that debaters should plagiarize, nor that no one should receive credit for their work, but getting upset about these incidents (and I would say voting based on seeing a case you wrote is probably an unethical practice) will solve less problems that it would cause through it’s arbitration.  (A judge who didn’t write that case wouldn’t know it’s plagiarized.)

    • Also, as was mentioned below, I think plagiarism is just generally a bad strategy.  If your tournament prep contains or focuses on borrowing other people’s material, that seems indicative of the inability to actually develop arguments on your own, which makes it unlikely for you to become a successful debater.

      Take Erik’s example: if you hit a debater who runs your case, why wouldn’t that be a blessing?  You know more about that case than he does; you WROTE it!  If there’s ever been a situation where you get an easy round, it’s one where someone you don’t know decides to try to use your own arguments against you.

      Basically, the invisible hand of the debateplace will check back traditional plagiarism. 

  • A couple years ago, I was judging at a local tournament in SoCal, when I noticed that two debaters from two different schools ran the same exact case in front of me in two different prelim rounds. Both of them claimed to have written their own case. I found both of the debaters and told them what happened. Then, I left them alone and let them sort out the problem themselves. I don’t know what agreement was reached between them, nor do I particularly care. Don’t jack people’s prep, debaters. 

  • See: gauthier 1 and 2 (you know the ones)

  • The March/April topic last year was the same topic I debated at the small camp I went to over the summer, which happened to be also attended by a kid who wasn’t very good from my local circuit. That year at NFL quals I hit this kid, and he ran the AC he had been running all tournament against me. Now, this AC happened to have been written by yours truly, and the remarkable part was that this kid was completely oblivious to that fact. He had taken it from the camp dropbox folder so nonchalantly that he had ceased to remember that someone else (specifically me) had written it. 

    How do I know that it wasn’t just coincidence? This happened to be a really bad case. All of the cards in this case were absurdly powertagged. Almost none of them actually made the argument that I claimed they made (a fact which I of course exploited in that round). There is a zero percent chance that someone who just happened upon these articles in a cursory search of the literature could have read the paragraphs that I had cut and then independently chosen to distort their meaning in exactly the same way that I had. Well, maybe not zero, but pretty close. 

    Now, this story is almost as embarrassing for me as for him (I’d like to think my casewriting has improved a little since the summer after my novice year), but I tell it both because I think it’s pretty funny and because I think it illustrates the absurdity that often ensues when prep-stealing occurs. It’s almost never done in a way that’s slick or low-key and it seems to frequently bite people in the ass. I think it also just makes people worse at debate. This guy’s round was over as soon as I pointed out that his/my evidence was godawful because his pre-round laziness prevented him from actually becoming familiar with his/my case and its flaws and its nuances. 

    I know that I’ve done better this year as I’ve transitioned to using cards that I’ve cut myself almost exclusively, sometimes even typing them out directly from books I own (not that I think my cases are the paragon of originality or anything). It takes more time but it just helps me know what I’m talking about more (though I’m sure there are people who would say that not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me from making arguments before). 

    It also has the added benefit of stopping debate from becoming boring and repetitive when hella folks make not only the same arguments but read literally the same evidence (I’m looking at you, that one Greek guy who writes about internalism) every round. 

    So I guess I tend to agree with Christian here, tending towards answering “no”, “the last one”, and “no” on the three questions.