Blog Post #7: Defining Plagiarism

This week, we are beginning our examination of the regulatory structures--both legal and moral--that we have established around rhetorical processes. In Bound By Law, the authors discuss how the U.S. Copyright Act attempts to balance intellectual property and free speech rights, the rights of copyright owners and the rights of artists and creators. The legal regulation of rhetorical processes via copyright law co-exists with implicit and explicit ethical regulations--like the Georgia State Academic Honesty Policy--that particular communities establish around their rhetorical processes. While copyright infringement and plagiarism seem conceptually similar at first glance, they are not interchangeable. For example, if a student purchases an essay from an essay mill or pays another student to do the work, that probably isn't copyright infringement, but it's definitely plagiarism. Similarly, quoting from a source for an academic paper almost certainly falls under the Copyright Act's fair use exception, whether or not the source is properly cited. It's not the Copyright Act but rather the code of ethics related to academic work that requires scholars (both students and professionals) to follow citation and attribution conventions.

In a very important piece on plagiarism that was published almost 15 years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rebecca Moore Howard argues, "[i]n our stampede to fight . . . a 'plague' of plagiarism, we risk becoming the enemies rather than the mentors of our students; we are replacing the student-teacher relationship with the criminal police relationship." According to Howard, "we have to ask ourselves why [students] are plagiarizing":

It is possible that students are cheating because they don't value the opportunity of learning in our classes. Some of that is cultural, of course. Today's students are likely to change jobs many times before they retire, so they must earn credentials for an array of job possibilities, rather than immersing themselves in a focused, unchanging area of expertise. The fact that many of them are working long hours at outside jobs only exacerbates the problem.

It is possible that our pedagogy has not adjusted to contemporary circumstances as readily as have our students. Rather than assigning tasks that have meaning, we may be assuming that students will find meaning in performing assigned tasks. How else can one explain giving the same paper assignment semester after semester to a lecture class of 100 students? Such assignments expect that students will gain something from the act of writing, but they do not respond to the needs and interests of the students in a particular section of the class. They are, in that sense, inauthentic assignments.

Partially in response to Howard's work, the Council of Writing Program Administrators created a "best practices" statement for instructors on "Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism." In that document, the WPA observes that instructors themselves can contribute to the plagiarism problem through poor project design:

When assignments are highly generic and not classroom-specific, when there is no instruction on plagiarism and appropriate source attribution, and when students are not led through the iterative processes of writing and revising, teachers often find themselves playing an adversarial role as “plagiarism police” instead of a coaching role as educators. Just as students must live up to their responsibility to behave ethically and honestly as learners, teachers must recognize that they can encourage or discourage plagiarism not just by policy and admonition, but also in the way they structure assignments and in the processes they use to help students define and gain interest in topics developed for papers and projects.

Rebecca Schuman, a writer for Slate, argues in "The End of the College Essay" that traditional essay assignments do little more than encourage already rampant plagiarism, and professors should replace them with different kinds of projects and assessments. Image credit: "Plagiarism" by ransomtech on Flickr.

What do you think?

Posting: Group 3

Commenting: Group 1

Taking a Break: Group 2

Category: Defining Plagiarism

Read the linked pieces from Howard, the WPA, and Schuman, and take some time to do some searching of your own on the web. Then, in your Blog #7 post, take a position about how you think plagiarism should be defined, and what you think should be done to police plagiarism (if anything). In the process of considering and arguing in favor of your definition and position, you might think about these fundamental questions: Who is "injured" by plagiarism? Who benefits when authors provide proper attribution and citation of their sources? Do you agree with Howard that some students plagiarize because they don't "value the opportunity of learning" or because "[r]ather than assigning tasks that have meaning, [teachers] may be assuming that students will find meaning in performing assigned tasks"? Remember, rather than simply answering these questions in order, use the questions as a starting point for constructing a brief essay organized around your own thesis about plagiarism, its possible causes, and how it might be prevented. Please carefully read and follow the guidelines and posting information for this blog.

Image Credit: "#4IPC2010_wordle_tweets" by jobadge on Flickr.

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