Monday, August 2, 2010

NYT Article Makes Peculiar Claim About Plagiarism In The "Digital Age"

According to New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel, the "digital age" raises questions about what constitutes plagiarism. Gabriel argues that the availability of information on the Internet complicates traditional notions of ownership and originality.

Citing examples of students copying information from websites without attribution, Gabriel makes the following claim:
[T]hese cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

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.

My Take
I am completely unpersuaded by Gabriel's argument. The availability of information on the Internet -- along with technology that allows for simple "cutting and pasting" of text -- undoubtedly makes plagiarism easier to accomplish. These innovations, however, do not change the definition of plagiarism. Rather than relaxing the standards of academic integrity, educators need to police plagiarism more intensely in the digital age.


Hippi Chicki Niki said...

Totally and completely agree with what you said in "My Take."

I do, however, agree with what Gabriel says after the words "least of it." The whole problem isn't the ease of doing it. Technology, the internet, wikipedia, and mp3s have affected more than just the methods of plagiarizing others. Children and adolescents now are growing up where books are on a kindle and an iPad; where you file share music and movies online; where you can put yourself on YouTube and anyone that wants to can share it use it and edit it; and where plagiarizing someone else on your blog is not something hat gets you in trouble. They don't have the same sense of the words contained within this book I am reading belong to J.K. Rowling or the music on this CD I am holding in my hand belong to Justin Bieber. The words and the music are not really contained within anything anymore and the boundaries of what IP is owned by a person is much more abstract than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

The much bigger issue is that children don't necessarily have the same perception as their parents, teachers and the law about the ownership of IP. It is probably necessary for us to start teaching children very early about the fact that someone can own a certain combination of words or sounds and, even though they sell you the right to read the book or listen to the music or watch the movie or play the video game, they still own that book, music, movie or video game. That's a bit of a tough concept for young people to grasp before they really are able to understand abstract concepts. Now, it's made even worse because the IP has become even more abstract and less of a solid, visible, tangible thing than when it was a book you could hold in your hand or a record, tape or CD. Now, you can edit wikipedia yourself - something you could never do with Encyclopedia Brittanica. How do you explain that, even though John can edit the encyclopedia himself that he still has to cite it because it's wikipedia's property?

You're right. We should not relax our standards one bit. Plagiarism doesn't stop being an issue once you graduate. There are copyright laws in the real world that those students will have to understand. Enforcing plagiarism in school is preparing students for a real life issue. Now, though, there is an added layer of issues that we must consider in teaching and enforcing plagiarism in school. We have to start giving more attention to the issue of plagiarism earlier in school and continue to make it much more of a focus in our primary and secondary schools than ever before. Otherwise, we're not just fighting a willingness to do wrong, but a true lack of full comprehension that no amount of consequences for the behavior can effectively remedy.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I remember "back in the day," people would copy their albums for others and "share" them. It was a lot harder than today, but this happened in the past....But I agree with your argument on this.

I think this is somewhat separate from plagiarism, however. When kids today download music, they do not believe that they have actually written the songs! That same logic should apply to academic work.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

True. However, they can sing a Justin Bieber song in front of a camera and post it on YouTube. They may, because of things like this, have no understanding that, if they were a professional artist they could not use another artist's music in a similar way without legal permission. That, not only did someone else write & record the song, they also own these abstract rights to the USE of the song.

In plagiarism, I am not arguing that kids today don't understand that they didn't write something, but the lines in their brains about the right or wrongness of using a subset of someone else's words may be blurred. I'm not talking an entire essay word-for-word, but more minor plagiarism issues like copying two or three sentences straight from wikipedia or other website without citations. The fact that copying others words from website or blog to yours or embedding others' picture, sound or video files is so frequently done and accepted may make them have a harder time understanding that it is different on paper in school.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

None of what I said changes the fact that Gabriel is wrong in suggesting that plagiarism rules should be relaxed.

Instead, teachers in lower levels of education should be stepping up their efforts to teach more about plagiarism. It should not only come up in English classes either. It should be a subject covered in any class where writing is a part of the curriculum. This way, by the time they get to the point in their education where plagiarism can result in failure or more serious consequences this is not a new issue.

*Do you know that you have an ad to fight to keep the Bush tax cuts from expiring?

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Well, I had a set of encyclopedias growing up. I learned in school to use footnotes when I got information from books. In law school, electronic research had been developed, and I learned to cite things that I found online. The wide availability of electronic information should not "blur" the lines. Perhaps teachers are failing kids.

Aspasia said...

One of my writing tutor colleagues was interviewed by Gabriel for this article. She didn't like his approach to the subject matter at all and felt that he was only concerned in portraying all cases of student plagarism as malicious and purposeful. In our experience, many cases are accidental or out of ignorance because students are confused on how to paraphrase or quote directly and how to cite, whether using MLA, APA or Chicago/Turabian style. She's been waiting for this article, I'll have to email her to let her know it's been published.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

As an academic, I also understand that many incidents of plagiarism also result from "ignorance." If this can happen in law school, then I am sure that it is even a larger problem for younger students.

My problem with the article stems from his effort to portray plagiarism as a shifting concept in the "digital age" -- which suggests he abandoned his effort to portray it as intentional or malicious. Although I believe that plagiarism can happen because students do not know how to make proper attribution, I do not believe that technology has changed the definition or ethics of plagiarism.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hutchinson,

Did you note that Volokh also posted a criticism of the NYT article?

To play the devil's advocate: aren't academics to some extent insisting on form over substance in this debate? How does it affect the merits of a student's scholarship learn the trick of rearranging words to make a passage technically "original"?

What is the difference in the merits of these two approaches:
1. a student finds a case or article online and pastes a paragraph into his or her paper,
2. a student finds a case or article online and pastes a paragraph into his or her paper and then rearranges the words.

As a former clerk and attorney, I believe that a third approach is the most persuasive:
3. find a case or article online and paste the paragraph into the brief -- in quotes and with attribution.

So I agree that law schools should teach approach number 3. But -- again as devil's advocate -- I wonder if there is little reason to distinguish between approach number 1 and 2.

In fact, we could argue that the first approach (copying without alteration) is preferable to approach 2 (copying with alteration but without attribution) to the extent that it results in more readable prose.

Perhaps in the future, the idea of summarizing a source "in your own words" will go the way of handwriting: a skill that academics once insisted was absolutely necessary for any scholar, but is fast becoming a quaint and antiquated relic of an earlier age.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi. I would say that No. 2 is wrong because the idea expressed in the rearranged -- but unattributed -- words does not originate with the student.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

@ Prof H: I agreed that the definition of plagiarism shouldn't change, but I was arguing that the area of research has changed and become a bit more complex and may now be harder for students to grasp.

My distinction between wikipedia and the encyclopedias of our day was that we were not able to edit our encyclopedias to add our own ideas to it, but today, children are able to edit wikipedia if the want. That adds a bit of a weird dimension to the encyclopedia used most by school-aged children today. What attribution do the give to a portion of a wikipedia that was added by them?

I said above a couple of times that the Gabriel is wrong to suggest the definition of plagiarism should change. I am saying that educators should recognize that this issue may be even more confusing today than it was prior to the internet revolution.

@Dan: a paraphrase of someone else's words should be given a citation. You don't use quotation marks, obviously, but you still give a citation.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Niki. Two responses. First, I would tell students to use Wiki as a source to find citations, but not as a primary source. Technically, the should cite Wiki if they get articles from footnotes on the cite; but citing only to Wiki seems like a bad move.

Second, authors can cite to their prior works. I suppose students can point out that they contributed to Wiki -- but the nature of Wiki (anyone can edit) makes that problematic. I just don't think this is a reliable source. People should simply tell students not to use it.

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