Digital Natives, Scholarly Immigrants?

While browsing through my table of contents alerts recently I came across an interesting article in the current issue of the Journal of Higher Education: “University Students’ Perceptions of Plagiarism,” by Lori G. Power (unfortunately behind the paywall at Project Muse). It’s a happy coincidence to come across this article now, as plagiarism has been much on my mind lately for a couple of reasons. A colleague is teaching our first student workshop on avoiding plagiarism this week. We’re also planning to offer a plagiarism workshop geared for faculty next semester, in collaboration with our college’s Writing Across the Curriculum program.

Power interviewed freshmen and sophomores at a small university in Maine both individually and in focus groups to try and unpack their knowledge about plagiarism. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), they don’t know as much about plagiarism as we may think (or hope). Power acknowledges that this aligns well with the results of previous studies, but her work reveals students’ perceptions of plagiarism in their own words, with fascinating results.

Power found that student responses to her questions about plagiarism fell into two main categories: agency and externalization. Most students expressed only partial understanding about what exactly constitutes plagiarism, especially regarding paraphrasing. Yet they were dissatisfied that many of their professors warned them away from plagiarism by emphasizing the potentially harsh penalties rather than explaining the nuances of academic writing. Students also noticed that faculty responded in different ways to plagiarism, which further increased students’ confusion. Ultimately, many students that Power interviewed expressed frustration at being required to play by the rules of the scholarly communication game without having had these rules fully explained:

It seems apparent at the college level at least, students see plagiarism as a bit of a power trip. Professors and college administrators seem to often tell students not to plagiarize, and warn them of the consequences, but these students don’t believe they do as well at helping students understand why not to plagiarize, or how not to plagiarize.

The other major theme identified by Power in her student interviews was externalization. Power suggests that because undergraduates–novices in the academic world–are unfamiliar with intellectual property, they view the prohibition against plagiarism as somewhat arbitrary. They often don’t identify a moral component to plagiarism, and don’t believe that there are consequences for plagiarism in the real world. And when asked why they shouldn’t plagiarize, many students in Power’s study replied that their professors needed to know that students had learned the course material rather than copying it from someone else.

Power concludes with suggestions for addressing plagiarism with our students:

We can’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach will work in preventing plagiarism. We must open wide the dialogue about power, judgment, and student agency. We need to improve our strategies for helping our students to discover the importance of intellectual property and the sharing and ownership of ideas.

Our students may be digital natives, but most are scholarly immigrants (at least as first- and second-year students). And as academic librarians, we have much to contribute to student learning about scholarly communication, intellectual property, and plagiarism.

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

5 thoughts on “Digital Natives, Scholarly Immigrants?

  1. This is interesting. I also think that the concept of “intellectual property” and “plagiarism” needs to change according to the times. Younger people growing up with access to technology will have a different approach to what it is considered “original” because sharing, remixing, mashing up and just simply the CTRL + C culture are where they are coming from. Academia needs to interrogate notions of authority and originality beyond merely theoretical frameworks to apply them in scholarly practice. That is what we can learn from the so-called “digital natives.”

  2. Ah, the wonders of social networks. When I read this post on Google Reader this morning, I clicked the “Share” button so that I would turn up in my FriendFeed stream. When it did, it generated a bunch of interesting comments, none of which are appearing here in your post. So here’s the URL for the conversation thread I started elsewhere (sorry!) http://ff.im/cd0aN

  3. I call bulls*&t.

    Plagiarism is copying other people’s stuff and claiming it as your own. It’s not that hard a concept. When I was growing up in average public schools in Alabama, we all knew what it was without any detailed, nuanced instruction. Same thing in college.

    But over the years, we’ve let students convince us that they’re just not bright enough to figure out what plagiarism is. And consequently, the consequences for such behavior have diminished, and the incidence has (shockingly!) increased.

    Kids aren’t stupid. To the contrary, they’re smart enough to persuade educators that they shouldn’t be held accountable when they’re caught red-handed copying off the Internet. They’ve played dumb, and we’ve let them play dumb.

    You want plagiarism to diminish? Fail a student for the course on the first incident, expel the student for the second offense. You’ll see kids figure out plagiarism really quickly.

  4. John, completely agree! Kids are not stupid, they are too lazy. And modern technologies make it easier to copy content. They do not even need to go to library to write an essay – a plenty of materials can be found in the Internet, moreover they can download a finished work. You know, I’ve faced some situations when a student download a coursework and does not even read it. And the author of the coursework to prevent plagiarism paste in the text phrases like “If you are reading this the student has not opened the coursework” :)

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