According to a recent article by Good magazine about 10 percent of American university students plagiarise from Wikipedia. Others, about 8 percent, copy from Yahoo Answers and Slideshare. These figures are based on a recent study released by Turnitin, a software program that academics use to check for plagiarism – you enter a piece of text into the program and it searches the net for a pre-existing version of that text. If the report is to be believed then, plagiarism is on the rise: 55 percent of US College presidents think so anyway.
I don’t have any figures for Australia, but conversations I have had with colleagues on this issue lead me to think it might be on the rise here too, although perhaps not to the extent that it is over there.1
Why is this happening? Well of course, and as usual, it’s the fault of the bloody internet, ebooks, Google, Wikipedia and all the other digital information technologies. They make it very easy for students to cut and paste material. They don’t even have to retype it anymore. All they have to do is cobble their information together in a word.doc, click select all and make sure all their stolen clippings are in the same font. Some of them, though, forget to do even that much, bless ‘em.
Prior to the introduction of these digital nasties students had to go to the library, browse catalogues and bibliographies, actually borrow books, read them without the help of a FIND search field and then retype or write the sections they thought relevant to their work. Having to actually locate, touch and work with the physical object that is printed text helped reinforce the idea that each book was the work of some individual(s), belonged to that someone in a moral and economic sense and had to be acknowledged as such.
Now all they have to do is sit at the feet of the great screen god who, with just a few simple prompts, delivers all the information they’ll ever need, and more, direct to their desktops. There are no more individual books; all the information now comes from the one source – the often authorless, largely anonymous internet. Is it any wonder many of them they don’t understand plagiarism, copyright or moral rights?
Secondly, although we find ourselves at the beginning of the digital age, an age that is rapidly remaking study life at the student level, universities as organisations are still living in the print age. They build buildings to accommodate students who don’t want to come to campus, they schedule classes at such odd times that those students who wish to attend can’t, because they have to work, to pay for their tuition (thanks for that one Hawkey!). In other words they’re living in the past. To be fair, it’s hard for such monolithic institutions to do otherwise, but the disconnect between student behaviour and faculty expectations, in terms of this issue, is there. University notions of copyright, plagiarism and attribution, belonging as they do to the age of print, struggle to function in the digital realm or in the minds of (if Turnitin is to be believed) an increasing number of students.
The whole notion that someone can own a piece of knowledge and should be recognised and rewarded as owner every time anyone else mentions that work is a construction of the print age, the economic system that engendered the Romantic idea of the author as sole creator of a work. It is a notion designed to protect property and income, as much as to protect artistic integrity.
Print’s very form made plagiarising difficult, analogue music and film formats made the unauthorised borrowing of those properties problematic too. Digitised versions of any content, however, are easy to take; they have no physical form, and it doesn’t actually feel like stealing. All you’re doing is pressing a few keys. It’s not like anybody’s getting hurt …
Prior to print, in the world of the manuscript and oral storytelling, students would sit at the feet of the master who would dictate his thoughts and ideas to them. They were expected to do what we call plagiarising. Knowledge then was considered to be created communally, rather than by one single person.2 Students would then use these dictated works as the basis for discussion, debate and the creation of yet more knowledge. That all changed once print introduced the buck to the world of knowledge.
This issue of copyright and plagiarism isn’t yet but will become a bigger debate than the print vs. eBook sideshow, because it is about pure economics: if nobody cares about who has written a book then the cult of the author is under threat. If the author has no currency then the economic unit that the author produces – the book – is similarly threatened. The news media industry has been struggling for years to cope with the fact that news as a commodity has very little value anymore, thanks to its being so widely distributed for free on the internet. Will we see book-based knowledge, ideas of authorship and intellectual property enjoy the same nightmare? What can we do to prevent this?
I wish I could answer that question!
At this early stage, perhaps all we can do is raise the issue that the current model, based as it is on how to control such works in print or in analogue format, is not working well enough anymore. Organically, and unconsciously perhaps, our students are creating new protocols and new understandings of these issues. Do we stand before them, Canute-like, ordering them to stop, or do we too look for a new approach to these issues?
I’m not suggesting we return to pre-print understandings of intellectual property and copyright, but perhaps we could learn something from an era in which what was said was more important that who said it.
1. Am I wrong? Is it worse or not so bad here? I’d be keen to know.
2. See this article from Teleread and the link to the thesis it’s based on for a much deeper discussion of the woes of copyright in the digital age.