Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Plagiarism" -- Your Grandparents Were Kidnappers

According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (note the citation!) the word plagiarism derives from the Latin word plagiarius, which literally means kidnapper.

M-W defines plagiarism as the act of stealing and passing off "(the ideas or words of another) as one's own : using (another's production) without crediting the source."

In a recent article, "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age," from The New York Times online, author Trip Gabriel cites the easy access to information online for the rise of plagiarism. One no longer need go to the library an check out a book or magazine, each of which includes publisher and author information. You just go to your computer, and, shucks, you own your computer, so why not what's on the screen?

Gabriel states in his article: "It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism."

"Kidnapping" the ideas of others, according to Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana University who is quoted in Trip's article, is not just stealing. It also has a downside for the also plagiarist because "relaxing plagiarism standards 'does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness.'"

Wilensky adds that students plagiarize in college "because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing."

As a career teacher, I have three points to make:
  • College professors need to make clear in class the writing procedures and ethics expected of their students, and by this I do not mean a vague reference. It is all too easy for high school teachers to say, "Well, they should have learned that in middle school." The same is true of college teachers; if the problem exists in your classroom, deal with it. Urge high school teachers to do a better job? Sure, go ahead. We need to attack academic challenges at all levels.
  • Although there are certainly students who come to college unprepared for the higher academic expectations, there are also plenty of students who are just too busy having fun put in the time. This probably has something to do with the fact that the "judging" portion of the brain is still developing. For a college (or high school) teacher to make very clear the penalties of plagiarism is essential. Clearly stating the realities (or penalties) of using the words of another without giving credit will help young writers make decisions.
  • "Rigor and relevance" are current buzzwords in teaching. Students do need to be taught the process of how to write a paper and how to do so without plagiarizing.  And why! Engaging students in interesting ideas and compelling articles on interesting topics is essential.
There has been some support of the idea that in the internet age of easy access to knowledge, there is no longer any real individual ownership of writing. This concept is refuted in another article, an opinion piece, from The New York Times, "Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal," by Stanley Fish. He comments that plagiarism should not be argued on philosophical grounds. Writers do indeed create original works, and there exist academic and legal processes for maintaining the rights of those wordsmiths. It is the job of educators to let students know the rules of the game and the penalties that occur when one does not play by the rules.

Fish includes this quotation in his article: "R.M. Howard makes the point succinctly 'If there is no originality and no literary property, there is no basis for the notion of  plagiarism' (“College English,” 1995)." As a reality check for writers who plagiarize: there is original writing being written every day, and there is the legal reality of literary property. Teachers need to advance that reality: plagiarize at your own risk. This area of academic excellence is not terra incognita; we know for a fact there be dragons there.

Or, to put the concept in everyday language--just because everybody has a car and you see them everywhere--that doesn't mean you have the right to drive one without the owner's permission. Ideas belong to everybody; the words belong to the author.

Copyright 2010 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved
and let me thank (or cite!) Lawrence Eyre for his tip on the Times articles


Post a Comment