Plagiarism: Is it time to rethink what it means in age of digital literacy?

iStock_000015964380XSmallMost students know that plagiarism is wrong, but it continues to be a common problem in today’s classroom. One study found that 52% of high school juniors admitted to copying several sentences from the Internet without citing a source. Why is plagiarism so prevalent?

A recent article in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy says the epidemic is a sign that students 1) are not as engaged in learning as they need to be, 2) don’t really understand what plagiarism is and 3) have different views and experiences of intellectual property because of their uses of digital literacy.

“Technology has become a primary cultural tool for communication, and though it offers greater access to a variety of ideas and information, it has also created the potential for students to misrepresent these ideas and information as their own,” the authors write.

“Because there are so many ways to access information and often multiple authors of that information, lines of ownership are blurred.”

Plagiarism as a social construct

It’s not just the Internet raising questions about the nature of plagiarism. Plagiarism is a social construct largely rooted in our ideas about private property, the researchers write. While many educators have a very strong sense of what is right and wrong on this issue, there has never really been a consensus on it and it is far more complex issue than is often appreciated. Teacher and administrators are sometimes guilty of it, too. The New York Times reported in 1980 that the student assistant’s handbook of the University of Oregon was copied verbatim from the Stanford University handbook.

Educators tend to assume that students know what plagiarism is. But, while they know in theory that it is wrong, many students remain confused about where to draw the line and need more explicit instruction about the mild and severe forms of plagiarism. For their part, educators need to update their own notions of plagiarism to reflect rapidly evolving literacy practices. Wikis, blogs and other social platforms have given rise to more collaborative practices of writing, further clouding notions of intellectual property.

It’s easy for teachers today to catch students in the act of plagiarism with many software and online screening tools. But catching students in the act does little to address the root causes of plagiarism. Engaging students more fully and authentically in learning is the only real antidote to the problem.

The article, “Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age,” makes several recommendations for taking a more proactive approach to addressing plagiarism in the classroom. It also calls on educators to re-examine their own ideas about plagiarism and to acknowledge digital literacy raises many questions about it.

Teach students about plagiarism. Have instructional conversations about copyright laws, citation standards, academic integrity and the gray area between building on the ideas of others and plagiarizing them. Many students may not understand that citing sources is not only about avoiding plagiarism but about about anchoring their ideas in existing theory and research. Give specific examples of your expectations in how they should use source material.

Show students how to paraphrase text from the Internet and how to elaborate on source material with their knowledge. Students may be savvy about using digital tools, but they do not have the skills and knowledge to evaluate information in an ethical manner, the article says. Teachers at the middle, high school and college levels need to assume responsibility for teaching these skills, according to the researchers. Citing sources is not really about avoiding plagiarism but rather about anchoring writers’ ideas in the theory and research that already exists, the authors write.

Engage students in inquiry-based learning. The most effective way of dealing with plagiarism is through instruction. Inquiry-based learning helps students develop ownership of the process. Retool lessons to focus on higher-order thinking skills. Some students plagiarize because they are intimidated about expounding on an expert’s ideas and will copy material just to look more intelligent.

Acknowledge the complexities of the concept of plagiarism. The notion that ideas can be owned is tenuous at best, write the authors. Is it reasonable for Girl Scouts to pay royalties for singing around the campfire? Should we have to pay a fee every time we sing “Happy Birthday?” We are clearly moving in the direction of collective literary practices where the emphasis is less on individual expression than on the co-construction of knowledge. These changes in literacy practice will also alter our views on plagiarism.

Broaden the audience for student work. If students only write for their teachers, they feel they are writing in a vacuum. Offer students multimedia ways of presenting and sharing information with a larger audience.

Create honor codes that allow students to self-police. Most policies and codes are established by teachers and educators and rarely enforced. Student-led honor codes are more likely to be implemented

Keep assignments relevant. If students have little interest in an assignment and don’t find it relevant, they will “steal” words just to get it done. Research has found that students don’t really see this as plagiarism when they are not trying to pass off the work in a publication or other public venue.

Give clear assignments. When students are confused about an assignment , they feel disconnected from the purpose of the work and will resort to plagiarism to get the assignment over with.

“Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age,” by Lea Evering and Gary Moorman, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 2012, Volume 56, Number 1, pps. 35-44.

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