Did You Write This?

Make of this story what you will, but it appears to confirm what many educators around the country have shared with us: plagiarism is not only getting worse, but is generally poorly understood by most students.  Universities around the country have reported increasing instances of students turning in work that has clearly been copied from other sources.  Many classroom teachers have reported that many students openly borrow from public sources without even bothering with attribution.

The Times argues that in an age of open information exchange, the line between one’s own work and ‘common knowledge’ may be blurring:

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.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

Some, like Notre Dame anthropologist, Susan Blum, have gone on to argue that some ideas, like plagiarism, may be based on antiquated notions of individuality and self-expression:

Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs.

In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

That’s too bad.  While it’s certainly true that rapid advances in technology and access to information have challenged our notions of originality and authorship, there’s little reason to believe that an effort to credit the sources that have shaped one’s thought is an outdated byproduct on an Enlightenment ideal.  While unfettered access to information have strained our traditional norms and customs, it is more likely that the ideas of attribution and credit – ideas that hinge on the simple idea of giving credit where credit is due – will simply be reshaped to reflect the realities of the Internet age. 

Some students, like Sarah Wilensky, argue more forcefully against relaxing originality standards:

That theory does not wash with Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana University, who said that relaxing plagiarism standards “does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness.”

“You’re not coming up with new ideas if you’re grabbing and mixing and matching,” said Ms. Wilensky, who took aim at Ms. Hegemann in a column in her student newspaper headlined “Generation Plagiarism.”

“It may be increasingly accepted, but there are still plenty of creative people — authors and artists and scholars — who are doing original work,” Ms. Wilensky said in an interview. “It’s kind of an insult that that ideal is gone, and now we’re left only to make collages of the work of previous generations.”

…The main reason it occurs, she said, is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.(emphasis added)

Many classroom educators have shared the same concerns – that many students graduate high school unable to express their ideas in written form.  The writing demands of the post-secondary world are increasing and many students may find themselves ill-prepared to face those challenges.  Open access to massive amounts of content, on just about any topic, may prove too tempting for students unable or unwilling to commit to scholarly research and the hard labor of writing.  In short, increasing instances of plagiarism may be less about crumbling Enlightenment ideals and more about easy access to lots of good sources and writing. 

Expertise in writing, much like any human endeavor, is achieved through effort distributed over long periods of time.  It is our hope that educators continue to maintain high standards for originality and authorship and that students recognize the hard work necessary for success in the post-secondary world.

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