Daily Archives: August 10, 2008

Reuse, Remix, Regret

An article in the Washington Post today raises an issue that is bedeviling colleges and universities. Where do you draw the line on plagiarism?

In this case, a student was expelled from a summer program abroad because, when writing about a film, his professor thought he inappropriately paraphrased his summary of the film from a Wikipedia article. Without commenting on the merits of this case – with only a newspaper article to go on, it’s hard to know all the nuances – this issue is one that plays out daily on campuses, and librarians are often called to weigh in. In fact, the WaPo asked for a librarian to comment.

Professors and librarians talk about plagiarism and other issues of academic integrity a lot more than they used to, said Barbie Selby, a university librarian, because research is so much easier to do now. It takes just a couple of clicks to copy and paste a passage from an online source into a paper, rather than going to the library, finding the right books and copying something by hand. Even unintentional mistakes are easier.

Online research is by far the most common practice now, Selby said, and it can be confusing. “We want to be as clear as possible about what is and isn’t acceptable,” she said. With digital sources, things wind up in notes without credit, and people are left unsure what came from where.

Is it true that “research is easier” in a digital environment, or that copying is easier? Or that it’s easier to get caught?

Maybe the fact that students are asked to write more from sources than in the past plays a role. As an organization of writing program administrators has pointed out, what is labeled plagiarism might quite often be better described as misuse of sources.

I have often wondered whether our zeal to prosecute plagiarism hasn’t somehow been infected by the RIAA’s efforts to stamp out music file sharing and the feds’ desire to “protect” us through ubiquitous surveillance. Though technology is often invoked as the culprit (giving rise to Digital Natives who are in need of a civilizing mission) it is technology that provides the damning evidence of wrongdoing. Not too long ago, a student who formed a study group at a Canadian university was nearly expelled from college because his teacher didn’t want students to work on problems together. Set aside that they were engaging in what their own university recommended as good study habits – they were caught because they met on Facebook instead of in the library, where their offense would likely go undiscovered.

Libraries exist to share knowledge. We need to help faculty do more than catch offenders. We need to help them understand how confusing it is, from their students’ perspective, to be invited to partake in knowledge, to see inquiry as a fundamental form of experiential learning, and then have their hands slapped for stealing. The delicate dance of knowing what is common knowledge and what needs to be cited is not obvious to the uninitiated, but the message is clear: knowledge is not yours.

Maybe it’s all Sir Isaac Newton’s fault. He’s the one who said he saw further “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, the scoundrel – he failed to acknowledge that he wasn’t the first to say it.