Monday, August 2, 2010

Plagiarism Anew

A recent article in the New York Times (1) discusses how today’s students seem to misunderstand the nature of plagiarism in the digital age. The article first describes several incidents of student plagiarism where the students simply did not understand they had done anything wrong; for example, one student copied material directly from Wikipedia and then claimed that since it was a collective work it was common knowledge to be freely used by anyone. Since we live in a world where illegal downloading is commonplace, it seems that this is beginning to extend into areas of scholarship as well. On the one hand, the internet is a freewheeling locus of activity and information exchange and discovery; on the other, there are mechanisms in place to protect copyright and limit plagiarism.

What appears obvious is that the concept of authorship is not well understood, nor is the concept of intellectual property. So much information is available on the web that we forget it was produced by someone, who made an effort and who created a work product. I suspect that if we were to query our students as to how many have at some time cut and pasted material without attribution, the number would be quite high. And why not? I recall a story involving a German teenager who had written a novel that was receiving good reviews but who had been criticized for copying material from another existing source. Her argument was that her work was a pastiche or “remix” and she saw no problem with using others’ words in her work since her work represented a new creative product (2). Authorship is changing, and this is evident even in scientific publication, where one can be an author without actually writing any of the text that is later published; for this reason, the idea of “contributorship” is emerging.

The concern is that real scholarship goes wanting. Students are more concerned about finishing an assignment and getting their grade than they are the material the assignment is supposed to teach. As Susan Blum (3) notes, "it’s O.K. if you write the papers you couldn’t care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade.”
So we have two tasks to counter this. First is to build in ethics training in our work, focusing not just on an understanding of copyright and plagiarism, but on appropriate ethical behavior for physicians. Second is to develop assignments which have meaning to our students. Both are not easy, but both are necessary. Our world is changing and we need to be ahead of the changes before they happen.

1. Gabriel T. Plagiarism lines blur for students in digital age., accessed August 2, 2010
2. Meadows C. Plagiarism or “remix”? 17-year-old author’s borrowing creates controversy., accessed August 2, 2010
3. Blum S. My word!: plagiarism and college culture. Cornell, MY: Cornell University Press 2009

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