Friday, February 18, 2011

Plagiarism: Getting the Point Across

Heather Cox Richardson

Over the years, I’ve tried everything I can to warn students away from plagiarizing. I explain, cajole, and threaten. I even have a set performance attacking plagiarism in the middle of the semester (the Plagiarism Lecture ought to win me an acting award).

It appears those of us who are soldiers in the war
against plagiarism now have a new weapon in our arsenal (from the University Library at the University of Bergen, Norway):

(If captions don’t appear immediately, click the cc button on the toolbar.)

There are pieces of this video that may be dicey for a classroom, but it does offer two crucial pieces of evidence that support our cause. First, it provides obvious proof to a student that plagiarism is not just the crazy hang-up of his or her particular teacher. It’s clear that a lot of money and time went into the making of this video. And it shows that plagiarism is hated everywhere, not just at a student’s particular school.

The way the video presents plagiarism as unacceptable is not how I present it. My own main point is that it is a profound version of theft. Still, educators I respect emphasize what the video does: that a student who plagiarizes cheats him or herself.

And in the era of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, poking fun at the issue to make a serious point might just work.


Joe said...

Nice blog. I assume that plagiarism is more of a problem now then it was when I was a student forty some years ago because now all that is needed is a computer, the internet, cut and paste. I think it is wrong, however, to characterize plagiarism as theft. The idea of theft is tied to the idea of ownership which in turn is tied to a social entity such as a person or corporation. I think it is wrong to assert that an individual or corporation can own mental things such as ideas. First, such ownership denigrates intellectual and spiritual projects which to my mind are morally superior to the instrumental justifications for private property. Second, promoting private ownership of intellectual property, also promotes the idea that there is a scarcity of good thought and that there are powerful authorities who disseminate good ideas. This authority view seems to me to be a disincentive to creative thinking if one is trying as a teacher to promote student confidence in their own thought. Third, the teacher-student relationship is a power relationship that should not be exploited by the more powerful agent. Such exploitation is below the value of intellectual relationships. It would be better for the teacher-student relationship if the teacher engaged the student in a dialogue about what has already been expressed by others and how and where they did it, then to try to enforce creativity (which seems to me to be a contradictory effort). Of course, in an environment where people are forced to do things they don't want to do, like getting credit for the required history classes, there will be students who just want to get over the hurdle. So why not just tell them they are trying to get by and let them go (with a passing grade, of course). Good ideas will sort themselves and are independent of owners and authorities.

LD said...

This video rocks. I am showing it to my students tonight.

Unknown said...

I'm curious about Joe's position, here. We're talking about creative thinking, I assume; since it makes no sense to argue about plagiarism in the case of 2+2=4? So I'm not seeing why saying that a particular person had a particular idea is a bad idea? I agree that there are many areas where intellectual property as it's currently construed is too restrictive. Patenting the genome is absurd, and a lot of our legal restrictions seem too arbitrary, and seem to ignore the fact that we're all standing on the shoulders of those who went before us.

But even so, I'd like my students to try to think a problem through on their own, rather than just google, cut and paste. I think the assumption is that there's something to be gained from the thought process. Not that the student is necessarily going to come up with a unique and never-before articulated answer. Sometimes I'm surprised, though -- and you never get creativity if you don't ask for it.