My friend @kohenari has an interesting post about plagiarism on his blog. The topic’s been under discussion a lot lately (both in the mainstream press & in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education). What makes Ari’s post interesting, however, is that he objects to the conventional wisdom that students today are more likely to plagiarize because the digital age makes it easier—and perhaps even reduces previously existing taboos about intellectual ownership. Further, Ari suggests that new social networking technologies (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) actually foster attribution, not plagiarism.
I would go a step further: I suspect plagiarism is no more prevalent today than it was before the digital age. Rather, I believe we are simply more likely to catch plagiarists—if we pay attention (I’ll get back to this later w/ a personal confession)—because of the ease of tracking down suspected plagiarism.
Like Ari, I take issue w/ this quote from a recent New York Times article on plagiarism:
“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.”
My experience suggests that students are quite aware of the concept of “authorship,” broadly defined. When I have given students group assignments, they complain about one thing in particular: They want to get individual credit for their contribution to the project, rather than depend on a collective group grade. This is merely anecdotal evidence, of course. But I get the impression that students regularly expect to be rewarded for the fruits of their labor, and resist the possibility of “free riders” sharing credit.
Like Ari, I’ve also noticed that most plagiarists know what they’re doing is wrong. Whenever I’ve caught a student plagiarizing on an assignment, I’ve simply handed back the assignment ungraded, and told the student we needed to talk. W/o exception, he/she always recognizes instantly why I called him/her over. If they have a defense (sometimes they just confess right away), it always involve them thinking they had changed enough words around. In short, they knew that what they were doing was wrong, they just didn’t think they’d get caught.
Prior to the explosion of the internet, students who plagiarized had to at least work at it. They had to find former students who had written similar papers. Or they could always hire someone to write a paper for them. Neither of these were easy to check, so I imagine a great deal of plagiarism cases in the past simply went undiscovered. Since the internet, students don’t even have to find someone they know. They just go online. Typically, they copy Wikipedia articles (I’ve had a few of those). Or they buy a paper online (I had one of those). But both are easily traceable. As anyone who has caught a plagiarist knows, it’s usually students who don’t write very well who suddenly turn in papers w/ few (or no) mistakes and/or vocabulary you’re certain they’re not familiar w/. Often, Google can provide evidence of guilt w/in 30 seconds.
In the case of my worst offender, I even found the whole paper online from three different paper mills. It took me less than 5 mins to find them all w/ Google. And the reason I was suspicious in the first place? The paper wasn’t even on the topic I had assigned. The student hadn’t even bothered to check the assignment prompt!
Could teachers do more to discourage plagiarism? Absolutely. Students have always plagiarized. Part of the problem was that it was difficult to catch them, so the cost/benefit ran in their favor. Especially if too many professors didn’t bother to carefully check papers.
This brings me to my confession: I’m a plagiarist. Once, in high school (in the pre-internet days), I did a little experiment in my honors civics class. I suspected the teacher (who’ll remain anonymous) didn’t really grade our assignments. (I suspected as much because all we did most days in class was play Trivial Pursuit.) So on an assignment to write an essay about a US president, I chose a midpoint in the paper to start plagiarizing. I took an encyclopedia off the shelf, opened to a random page (I remember it was about dinosaurs), and began to copy word for word. Let me be clear: This was a 10-page paper in which 90% was original work by me about a former US president & 10% was text from an encyclopedia entry on dinosaurs. The teacher never remarked on it (in fact, I got an A on the assignment). And that’s one of the chief reasons why plagiarism is such a problem.
If we want to have a frank conversation about plagiarism, we have to stop focusing on the question of new technologies & generational issues. We need to focus on institutional structures that make plagiarism tempting enough to run the risk.