Report from ACRL-NJ: Quarantine the Plagiarism Plague

I recently attended an all day ACRL-NJ conference on plagiarism. NJ librarians have really taken the lead on this issue, spurred on by Rutgers University librarian Vibiana Bowman’s book of essays, the Plagiarism Plague. Previously I hadn’t thought too much about plagiarism, conceding the issue to disciplinary faculty and wondering what the librarian’s role could be. Librarians at least need to begin to inform themselves on the various issues surrounding plagiarism, such as defining what plagiarism is, gauging if it is on the rise and if so what are the causes, and then figuring out what we can do about it. Plagiarism seems to be on the rise throughout our culture, not merely among college students. Librarians can provide information about citation, develop tutorials, and be part of an overall culture that discourages academic dishonesty. In giving an overview of the legal issues of plagiarism detection services, Luis Rodriguez (Montclair State) made a point that stuck with me: he connected plagiarism to student learning. This seems to me a fruitful possible way to tie together plagiarism with information literacy.

6 thoughts on “Report from ACRL-NJ: Quarantine the Plagiarism Plague”

  1. Well…….

    This came up in a previous post. I agree that librarians have a role to play in helping students understand and avoid plagiarism, but there is a “moral panic” rhetoric being used about it that makes me wonder how much accusations of cheating, fraud, dishonesty, and general moral turpitude of These Kids Today are linked to worries that technology and its users are upending traditional notions of authority, control, and – yes, it rears its head once more – intellectual property.

    There’s an interesting book of essays on this: Perspectives on Plagiarism in a Postmodern World. Plagiarism – and our worries that it signals a new low in civilization – is nothing new.

    A lot of libraries (and writing centers) try to find ways to create assignments and research processes that not only discourage plagiarism but make it easier to understand what it is we’re doing when we do research. (Here’s an example from a workshop I did for our faculty a while back.) For many students, the “traditional research assignment” is an elaborate cut-and-paste activity with footnotes. If our assignments are better designed, they will make fewer mistakes using sources and true cheaters won’t have such an easy time of it.

    If Rodriquez is arguing that learning is better than us relying on technology services that claim to detect plagiarism automatically – I’m in total agreement.

  2. The connection between student learning and efforts to fight plagiarism is very important. Critical thinking is at the core of information literacy, and one way to operationalize critical thinking is as the ability to evaluate the usefulness of an information resource for a particular problem and to apply that resource appropriately. Plagiarism undercuts that process; it is therefore an obstacle to critical thinking and a central concern for information literacy.

    I recently gave a presentation on copyright and plagiarism to some undergraduate students, and the connection around which I built the presentation was intellectual ownership. Encouraging students to “own their own ideas” provided, I hope, a positive way explain way plagiarism is a problem and what it means to be a critical thinker.

  3. Kevin,
    I think you are going in the right direction with critical thinking and encouraging originality. How far do you want to push the “own their own ideas” tack, though? This takes things into intellectual property, and copyright says ideas cannot copyrighted, only their expression. If everyone “owned their own ideas” wouldn’t this drastically impede intellectual debate, as the framers of the constitution feared?

  4. Thanks, Marc, for your comments.
    I was very intentional about the phrase “intellectual ownership.” I used the distinction between a personal sense of ownership over one’s ideas and a limited legal right over one’s expression to stress the difference between plagiarism prohibitions and copyright. But I do indeed think that intellectual property is a useful framework for the discussion; it helps a great deal if one tries to understand exactly what kind of property intellectual property can and was meant to be, and why it is not like other kinds of property. The concept was helpful in getting students to discuss the difference between what they create and what they buy, which goes to the heart of the plagairism problem. And creation, of course, is exactly what the framers hoped to encourage when they authorized the limited monopoly for authors.

  5. To add to what Marc wrote about what I said at the ACRL NJ conference on plagiarism:

    1) To me, ACRL information literacy standards treat plagiarism as something that is separate from the research process. They seem to say: “do you research first; find and evaluate your information, and then worry about proper attribution and citation.” I suggested that, instead of speaking about plagiarism as something students deal with after having done their research, librarians should speak about plagiarism in ways that connect research with reading and with ‘riting so that students are better able to “own their ideas” or to find their own voice when writing. I can’t say I have the answer to how this is done, but I think clues to it may be found in the work of Carol Kuhlthau and Barbara Fister.

    2) I also suggested that we think of the primary objectives of assignments that ask students to engage in research using source material to be to promote student learning (of their discipline) and to develop critical thinking skills. To me, learning how not to plagiarize and how to cite material appropriately should be secondary learning objectives of such assignments. It may be that to help students achieve the primary objectives, we may need to relax our expectations on the secondary objectives. For students new to a discipline, asking them to put what they read into their own words may not be the best approach to get them to learn to read and synthesize the material in a discipline. This is not to say that we condone plagiarism, but that we acknowledge the difficulties that students, new to a field, have in not plagiarizing.

  6. Thanks for jumping in, Luis – (and of course for mentioning me and Carol Kuhlthau; I’m chuffed). What you say makes sense to me. Choosing which sources to pay attention to and understanding one’s relationship to those ideas is the valuable piece; using them in a written form that doesn’t break the rules is relatively minor. And we tend to lump mistakes in using sources together with deliberate fraud when we name it “plagiarism.”

    I have always liked the OWL tutorial from Purdue because it at least acknowledges this stuff is not cut-and-dried; and the WPA Statement on best practices seems very sensible.

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