Meanland: Copyright or wrong?

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.

John Weldon

John Weldon has worked as a freelance writer since the mid 90s. His work has been published by the Age, the ABC and the Western Times among other organisations. He currently lectures in Professional and Creative Writing at Victoria University. His first novel, Spincycle, will be published later this year by Vulgar Press.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Definitely not wrong, for mine; and yes, a second sailing a la Socrates, as a return to things as stated and presented through quotation, might be a way clear of simply policing plagiarism. Then it would be up to universities to teach the philisophical, cognitive,linguistic and ethical bases of quotation, what it means to be able to quote, in all its fullness, where mistakes, confusion and wrongdoing are as interesting as clarity, virtue and individual possessiveness.

  2. Definitely not wrong, for mine; and yes, a second sailing a la Socrates, as a return to things as stated and presented through quotation, might be a way clear of simply policing plagiarism. Then it would be up to universities to teach the philosophical, cognitive, linguistic and ethical bases of quotation, what it means to be able to quote, in all its fullness, where mistakes, confusion and wrongdoing are as interesting as clarity, virtue and individual possessiveness.

    1. Hi Dennis,

      I think attribution, copyright and the like might be the kind of print age gains that McLuhan thought we should fight to maintain in the digital age. Not sure about our chances though.

  3. A related item about research and the net, with little to do with the matters raised in this piece. I believe the internet and electronic databases are skewing research to some extent. I’m seeing scholarly articles and theses heavily based on, and confined to, materials available online. Despite puffery to the contrary, not everything is online, and there is a hell of a lot of research material, both primary and secondary, that still exist only in paper formats. In my own case, not that I’m complaining, I find myself cited from time to time simply because a lot of my work has been available online since the late 1990s, while better scholarly stuff more deserving citation, is in refereed journals by others-but not online.

  4. Hi Rowan,

    Interesting point and yes many do seem to think that if it’s not on the net it doesn’t exist, in terms of research. I’m wondering if that thought is a myth that will become truth. Will print texts become harder to access as libraries are squeezed? Will the texts that don’t go online be forgotten or marginalised?

    1. The issue of libraries being squeezed, financially, and physically, is of concern. Physically shelf space shrinks, holdings are pruned, holdings dumped. The fact material is available online does not mean it does not come at no cost; online access to scholarly research materials is only as wide and rich as finances permit; access to research materials comes at a financial cost. The question you raise of marginalisation, of being ‘forgotten’, is significant.

  5. Significantindeed. Who chooses what goes online and how available it is allowed to be.This may sound way out now, but could print items that don’t make it online one day become like manuscript? Or is there simply too much paper around for it to ever become like that?

  6. Perhaps worth remembering that Canute was making an ironic point (about the limits of sovereign regulation) when he won his fame. Plagiarism is so central to the idea of a university, and consequently also to the self-images of professions that use universities to run their recruitment systems, that I don’t think we could ever expect them to develop a sophisticated definition of the problem, let alone a proportionate response to it. Of likely results, the least dysfunctional would be that illicit plagiarisers learn to negotiate between their own pragmatic interests and the ideological rigidity of the institutions that qualify them to practice and earn.

  7. I might be wrong, but I thought I was suggesting something more fundamental than economic questions relating to attribution, copyright and the like were at issue in respect of an understanding of quotation in all its fullness. With what I had in mind it makes no difference what the age: oral (oracy), print (literacy) or digital (electronacy). Unless we morph with machines in the future to produce some sci-fantasy hybrid, quotation is at the heart of what it means to be human, and not a (I hate to say it) lesser animal or machine (as presently understood). An understanding of quotation completes the thought and distancing that occurs in both everyday and academic discourse and exchange.

  8. This is a fascinating piece thanks John. I’m not sure exactly what my thoughts on it are – you raise so many things, not the least of which is plagiarism – but I do think we’re seeing the end of a 500-year era of economically sanctioned authorship, which as you say is a myth anyway (part of the age of print which brought the Romantic idea of sole authorship). The oral poets built on the work of others, which seems a model far more consonant with today.

    I’ve been reading the fascinating paper OL poetry editor Peter Minter gave at the 2011 ASAL conference on literary composting and decomposition criticism among many other things, which is very fertile ground in the context of this discussion.

  9. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for the comment. I think we are, whether we like it or not, going to see an overhaul of copyright, IP, notions of authorship, etc.

    Do you have a link to the Minter piece? It sounds very interesting.

  10. Yes Minter piece is FASCINATING and no, I don’t have a link to it. Peter sent me a copy. I’m not sure if it’s going to be published but I’ll ask him if it’s available and will let you know.

    And incidentally, I’ve been thinking more about what you say about universities etc (having just done my first semester of tutoring in creative writing at UNSW) and think you make excellent points about universities living in the past in every respect (eg from simple fact of being buildings on campuses students don’t want to/can’t get to, to the thorny issue of plagiarism in a digital era), although I do think they’re in slow process of moving into the digital age.

  11. I appreciate your ideas about the demographics of a changing campus (thanks also Jane GW).
    Recently I gave a student a big fat zero for his essay, knowing he was clever enough to pass the exam and therefore the unit. He was one of those ‘bless thems’ who didn’t even bother to change the font in his cutting and pasting. I could have done the whole uni punitive ‘flow chart’ but in the end I just emailed him and told him off good and proper.

    The thing about turnitin is that is so removed from the intuitive classroom. It’s only useful to those tutors or lecturers who don’t have any idea what their students are writing. As someone on a small campus who is intimately familiar with every student’s work, I picked a transgression straight away (even before the font change). All it took was googling a few sentences.

    Anyway, given the internet and the changing ideas about borrowment (and you’ve brought a few doozies, John, thank you) I still feel it comes down to good manners: Acknowledge those whom you have borrowed from.

  12. Hi Sarah,

    I tend to take a similar approach to the bless ’ems too. And, like you, I prefer to use Google rather than Turnitinand to follow this up with a slap on the wrist. I wonder how many other academics do the same?

    ,I agree, also, that a teacher should have some idea of what to expect from a student such that they are sensitive to potential issues with plagiarism. This of course becomes harder as class sizes increase.

    Lastly, yes, we should acknowledge those from whom we have borrowed. I think the question here though is how to do so. If the current model is failing,, or is failing to adapt or if we are failing to teach it well, or if the Internet makes it such that information becomes worthless and effectively free then how can we expect students to recognise the need to acknowledge sources?

    I think it’s a fascinating debate and one we need to have.

  13. HiYa John

    I am a student and Love this topic.

    I understand plagiarism to be using another persons ideas etc. and presenting them as my own. To get around this I can acknowledge the source of the ideas – provide references.

    Why do I reference? I don’t care too much about acknowledging the legal ownership of the work… Referencing is all about me…it adds a credibility to my argument (or uni essay, or report for work), giving some depth and breadth. Referencing is all about the reader… it gives the reader the opportunity to discover more, by providing a link to the original source. Referencing is also about the original author… by referencing I respect the blood, sweat and tears which have gone into their work.

    If referencing was presented as merely a legal obligation – I wouldn’t be overly bothered with it.

    Is plagiarism really on the rise? Or is it just more easily detected today? Prior to copy and paste commands it was just as easy to re-write information from a physical book.

    Perhaps the emphasis should not be on the rise of plagiarism, rather, emphasise the importance of the ability to critique, question, evaluate, analyse…?

    Great last sentence, ‘what was said was more important that who said it’.



  14. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I’m really intrigued by the following: “Why do I reference? I don’t care too much about acknowledging the legal ownership of the work… Referencing is all about me…it adds a credibility to my argument (or uni essay, or report for work), giving some depth and breadth.”

    I think we in the academy might have more success in pushing the anti-plagiarism barrow if we focus more on the idea that referencing makes the student’s work better. That way we perhaps make it useful rather than burdensome.

    Interesting too what you say about whether plagiarism is really on the rise or whether it’s just easier to detect.

    I think it is mechanically much easier to plagiarize these days and it is also much easier to check for it. So, anecdotally of course, I’d suggest that there’s more of it and we’re better at finding it too.



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