Plagiarism - Technology Issues

First of all, whatever the problem is, it's looking like we're all in it together -- university students, faculty, and administrators -- and we all could use some definition. Since technology is looking less and less like an instigator of the problem, too much focus on it might very well distract us from recognizing that the uncertainty surrounding Internet sources, and indeed plagiarism in general, is very much a part of academic culture right now. "Encouraged by digital dualisms," suggests Howard, "we forget that plagiarism means many different things: downloading a term paper, failing to give proper credit to the source of an idea, copying extensive passages, without attribution, inserting someone else's phrases or sentences -- perhaps with small changes -- into your own prose, and forgetting to supply a set of quotation marks" (Howard "Forget").

"If we ignore those distinctions," Howard continues, "we fail to see that most of us have violated the plagiarism injunctions in one way or another, large or small, intentionally or inadvertently, at one time or another. The distinctions are just not that crisp" (Howard "Forget").

Robert Boynton, in a Washington Post& article titled "Is Honor Up for Grabs?" attributed the confusion for students, at least in part, to what he called the "Napsterization of knowledge -- the notion that ideas (like music) are little more than disembodied entities, 'out there' in the ether, available to be appropriated electronically in any way users wish" (Boynton B01).

"What now constitutes honorable behavior," he suggests, "is an open question" (Boynton B01).

His suggestion is to stay focused on the principles rather than on the technology: "...for all the added efficiency, ... copying is still copying. Cheating is still cheating. The words you present as your own either come from you or from someone else. All the technology in the world will never change that" (Boynton B01).

But other researchers and scholars are complicating things even further by pointing out that the Internet, with the free exchange of ideas and information that it suggests, might be exposing a constructed and somewhat artificial basis for plagiarism rules and intellectual property in general. Through this lens, the truly collaborative nature of all writing and ideas is surfacing, making plagiarism rules seem a bit outdated. contributor Victoria Olsen refers to compositionist Andrea Lunsford's work when she suggests that "the very nature of these controversies over student plagiarism may change as certain notions of authorship and what constitutes intellectual property continue to evolve." Part of this evolution, in Olsen's interpretation, hinges on understanding the inherently collaborative nature of writing: "By making it difficult to trace the origins of a text or idea," she explains, "the Internet reminds us that writing is a collaborative process" (Olsen).

"If these ideas gain ground," Olsen continues, "crediting someone with 'ownership' of intellectual property may begin to seem absurd, and plagiarism may become obsolete -- through its sheer acceptance" (Olsen).

In the work on which Olsen's article is based, Andrea Lunsford and her collaborators ask us to consider that the notion of intellectual property is central to current understandings of academia. In light of the more open system of information sharing suggested by the Internet, though, she poses a series of interesting questions raised by the electronic age: "What happens if the knowledge products educational institutions have reserved as their prerogative are now readily accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime? What happens if the producers of that knowledge, the romantic 'authors' ... are so widely dispersed as to be invisible, parcelled out in so many ways and through so many different hands that 'ownership' cannot be fixed to a person or persons? What happens if the electronic revolution effectively destroys old systems of the 'right' to copy, to copyright? What then?" (Lunsford et al., 11).

That's food for thought, anyway. We're not there yet, obviously -- we have policies and responsibilities as scholars and educators who must recognize current standards of ethical scholarship. And we need to think about how to be scholars in a digital age in the academic culture that exists now. But as Lunsford asserts, "if we do not get in on this discussion, we are going to be written and shaped by it -- in ways we may not like" (Lunsford et al., 8).

"The information genie is out of the bottle," Boynton exclaims, "and even the grown-ups can't decide whether to try to put it back in, or to live with the anarchy it has created" (Boynton). For Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity, the choice here is clear: "The challenge for educators is we need to come to some agreement on what the rules are, because students are not accepting the rules that have been out there for years" (Zernike 10).

So maybe there's something we can do in our classrooms to help each other explore what's behind these constructs, to look ahead a little, and to participate in shaping the shift that's already taking place, with or without us.