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.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

6 thoughts on “Reuse, Remix, Regret”

  1. It is an interesting problem to say the least. In my consulting business, I am seeing an increasing number of people approaching me sasying that they have been falsely accused of plagiarism by their schools and seeking help/advice. In many cases, the evidence supports the notion that the university was overzealous.

    I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that colleges have fallen victim to the RIAA mentality, but I do think that they have become entranced on the technology, the same as the students.

    Professors get neat and color coded originality reports that they often substitute for actual judgment about whether or not plagiarism took place.

    The emphasis, it seems, is on eliminating copying, not on actually eliminating plagiarism. Furthermore, as you pointed out, the separation between “common knowledge” and research is a blurry one at best and leads to even more issues, especially when you research on the Web.

    All in all, I think both students and professors need to learn that technology is just a tool and not a replacement for judgment or learning.

  2. This comment is actually from Marilyn R. Pukkila, but our blog kept timing out on her…

    If I remember the Canadian case correctly, the students had been told not to share the ANSWERS to the questions, and the invitation to the Facebook page included a request that students post answers if they had them. It’s the nuances that trip them — and us — up. When I work with our Writers Center student tutors, I begin with a question: why is plagiarism bad? It’s this context that is often lacking for them. I also ask them, would you like to drive over a bridge built by someone who plagiarized their way through engineering school? And wouldn’t you prefer to know the source of the information about weapons of mass destruction in [fill in your preferred country] before you decide whether or not invading them is a good idea? Understanding the context in this way is, to me, more important than knowing where MLA wants me to put the comma (which is what we mostly wind up dealing with), but we rarely get to talk about that.

  3. I don’t know Ms. Selby, or anything concerning her undoubtedly fine library work — but it does strike me as somewhat a pity that such an eminent and influential medium as _The Washington Post_ dishes up from a librarian (or anyone else, actually) such a superficial and misleading commentary, in which is strongly suggested a) that research is the equivalent of looking things up and reproducing them (with or without attribution), and b) that good research ought necessarily to be based on printed publications (even stronger: “books”, indeed “the right books” [sic]) rather than on resources in digital form online. The least we can do is to keep straight the distinction between carrier and content (or, in FRBR-terms perhaps, “expression”), I’d think. Do we, furthermore, really want to give the impression that in our view “going to the library” is (still) some kind of gold standard or obligatory ritual?

    Don’t librarians want to be thought of as good at critical thinking — nay verily, masters therein? This won’t help, it seems to me.

    Maybe (at least one hopes that) her discourse was misquoted by _TWP_, or perhaps the comments were taken radically out of context.

  4. I found it interesting that the WaPo reporter paraphrased almost everything the librarian said rather than quoting directly – given that the student’s issue was over an allegedly plagiarized paraphrase. “We want to be as clear as possible about what is and isn’t acceptable,” is the only quote from her. Which is a pretty unexceptionable statement. The rest – well, it’s hard to know what she really said and what was the reporter’s take on it.

    Of course, the assignment the student handed in was not research based, but a commentary on a film. Maybe students have gotten the idea that the only way they can write something for academic purposes is to look it up. It didn’t sound as if there was any need to use sources – students were supposed to relate a film to things they’d learned in class; but this student went to Wikipedia to get information about the film and was dinged (dramatically) for not citing it.

    If the student read the Wikipedia article as a substitute for watching the film (the equivalent of reading Cliff’s Notes instead of Hamlet) that’s a kind of cheating. But turning it into plagiarism seems to me to rather miss the point.

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