If You Didn’t Write It, It’s Plagiarism

With the academic year fast approaching, it’s nice to be able to reference the New York Times when discussing the bane of my existence. But, of course, the article presents a much more complicated picture of plagiarism than I think is warranted.

After providing several examples of blatant plagiarism, the author suggests the following:

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

In short, a lot of students are plagiarizing … but they might not be able to help themselves since they grew up around technology that makes it difficult to comprehend when something should count as stealing and when it shouldn’t.

I probably write this once a week, but it bears repeating: it’s not the technology. It’s clear that the author, Trip Gabriel, doesn’t really have anything to back up this assertion. There are some quotes, all of which are also speculative, and there’s some survey data, which tells us that students still think copying from online sources is cheating (but that fewer think it’s “serious cheating”).

When you copy material from any source without attribution — regardless of the ease with which you can do so — you are plagiarizing. Technology might make it easier to plagiarize today, but it’s a mistake to suggest that students are developing a more fluid understanding of ownership.

Some students might not come to college knowing how to make an effective argument that integrates quotations from other authors and some might not know the appropriate citation methods that college professors require, but in nine years of identifying plagiarism at the college level, I have never had a student argue that he or she thought it was acceptable to simply cut and paste other people’s words and ideas from websites into his or her essay. Not once.

Eventually, Gabriel presents this side of the story as well. Except this other side is based on facts, rather than the author’s sense of what might be happening with today’s youth.

For example:

At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.

Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”

This is quite different from the work of Susan Blum, an anthropologist at Notre Dame, who says that “Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning.” This is based on ethnographic research with 234 undergraduates and it leads her to conclude “that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.”

That’s all well and good, except that the norm at social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr is to provide proper attribution for material that you post. Often, things that I write get “picked up” by others and, pretty much every time, it’s made abundantly clear that the writing is mine … even when someone reblogs an entire post of mine on their own blog. People who regularly use these social networking sites, in other words, are amplifying what I’ve said by sharing it with others who might not have seen it when I said it. Whether these people are agreeing or disagreeing with me, if they quote what I’ve said, they provide proper attribution so that anyone who reads what they’re saying can track back to my post or tweet.

So, now, here’s a little experiment of my own:

This post — or a link to it — could be seen by about 2000 people, if they’re paying attention when it’s posted (and with some overlap, since some Facebook friends are also Twitter or Tumblr followers). If you’ve read this far, then, consider resposting the link on Facebook, retweeting the link on Twitter, or reblogging some part of this post on Tumblr. This would be a pretty decent demonstration of the fact that the internet isn’t making people plagiarize and that, really, it’s just as easy to use technology to properly attribute source material.

# teaching # technology

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  1. figsandmilk reblogged this from squashed
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  4. squashed reblogged this from kohenari and added:
    kohenari writes: What Ari doesn’t mention, but perhaps should, is why plagiarism is the bane of his existence....
  5. kohenari posted this

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