Possessive Individualism and Dynamic Texts: Reconfiguring Plagiarism

To me, one thing that is interesting with the advent of digital culture is the challenge to the very notion of identifying who is an author and who is a reader. Furthermore, there is the issue of whether you can ‘own’ text/images in such a dynamic space. “Possessive individualism” – the belief that individuals can own or protect the product of their intellectual labours (as defined in various national and UN intellectual property laws for example) is, I believe, challenged in digital spaces and more recently by the cultural commons movement.

This is particularly true where readers can also become writers, therefore authors, and the individual can swap between roles within the same digital space (such as contributors to Wikipedia). Where digital spaces allow for dynamic and changing texts and images and also allow multiple contributors to work on a particular textual representation – it is difficult to see how the legal notions of authorship citation that grew up from English common law in the 1700s apply. The tension between the traditional notions of authorial attribution from the print text era and the networked environments of the cultural commons, can be particularly difficult for students to understand and navigate.

It appears to me that the tension between these competing ideas plays out in university plagiarism policies, procedures and outcomes. On the one hand, plagiarism policies are there to protect folk from the ‘cut and paste’ theft of work and to encourage a culture of honesty in academic endeavour. On the other hand, sometimes such policies and processes become so rigid and inflexible that they are excessively punitive, and little room is left for the growth of learning or making citation errors. With increased use of Web-based materials in both teaching and research, it is difficult to envisage how scrutiny of plagiarism can keep pace, without turning teachers into surveillance police – even with the advent of technological text-matching software.

Perhaps one way to ‘reimagine plagiarism’ and balance the protection of individuals’ rights to intellectual property with allowing digital innovation in collaboration, is to view it as an issue of ethics and integrity. A number of institutions have introduced ‘ethical behaviour’ scenarios and activities within units, courses and programs in both teaching and research spaces. These initiatives are designed to shift the emphasis from focussing on punishing unethical behaviour (defined as plagiarism, cheating and collusion) to engaging in practical ethical behaviour in learning. Many universities are also trying to encourage an institution-wide adoption and adherence to a culture of academic honesty and integrity, amongst students and staff. In altering the lens from punishing kidnappers of text to instilling awareness of the ethical correctness in acknowledging authors of prior work seems, to me, to be one way to work effectively in the shifting sands of plagiarism in the digital age. What are others ways out there that work?

  1. Image on front page by Matt Cornock and available on Flickr


Thank you for this post. I think in general a lot can be done to improve discussions of plagiarism if we focus on academic integrity or the integrity of our own work. I think one thing my students miss about plagiarism and one thing that keeps them going back to direct quotations is a lack of confidence in their own understanding of a particular work. For instance, if they are not exactly sure what a particular piece means, it is much easier to quote it than to properly paraphrase. If they exist in this space and the teacher demands that less than a certain amount of the paper be direct quotations, then I think it becomes easier to cut and paste than to grapple with the text. I think one thing that the internet does well is give students the opportunity to see a wealth of examples of something (like a meme) that my classes can't afford.

In my classes, paraphrasing and citing to prove comprehension is pretty common (though I don't call it that I call it a reflective writing) and I find my students are much more comfortable with the task. Teachers and developers of writing confidence and integrity instead of teacher as plagiarism surveillance can go a long way. I think we can have a different and more dynamic conversation with a student when we do find plagiarism within his or her work if we focus on this as well, even when we are not teaching composition courses. 

I agree that we need to find ways to instill "confidence and integrity," as commenter Jamie Henthorn puts it, rather than explore technology's ability to surveil students. My college has had a student-initiated Honor Code since the early 1950s that places most of the responsibility for ethical behavior on the students themselves. Tests are not proctored, and if an instructor discovers suspected cheating he/she does not confront the student but reports him/her to the Honor Board, a student-run panel that includes faculty. Like many schools with such a code, Knox is proud of the opportunity it offers students to claim ownership of their academic integrity.

Of course, the execution of the Code is fraught with pitfalls. The penalties can be severe, the President can override Board decisions, and the overall tone of the system continues to be legalistic rather than educational. However, these problems are being addressed. For myself, as a writing tutor and instructor here over the past twenty years and as a member of the Honor Code review committee, I focus on the pedagogy of integrity. When working with other instructors' students as a tutor, I see every suspected act of plagiarism as an opportunity to teach; as an instructor, I make it clear that I employ no policing methods—aside from my own ability as a reader to "hear" the telltale signs of plagiarism (not a precision instrument, but I've been working on it for thirty years now)—but we frequently discuss plagiarism, the challenges it presents in a digital age, and the kinds of things we can do together through in- and out-of-class assignments to continue to learn how academic integrity can be strengthened. I have long relieved myself of the (for me) oily role of word-cop—I find no pleasure in finding plagiarism, just a kind of sad anger—and instead recognize that academic integrity, like writing itself, is a process learned incrementally. We must give students opportunities to fail without penalty (the foundation for most scientific research, and a necessary component of all empirical and critical analysis).

As to generational shifts in the perception of what constitutes intellectual property theft, on the whole my students believe two things: (1) It's their right to own/use/enjoy everything ever published, composed, and designed—and all for free; and (2) claiming ownership of it without attribution in their academic prose is cheating. They see the line, and are more worried about their inability to chart that academic undiscovered country (should I cite that phrase?) than they are eager to "own" another scholar's work as they would a song, movie, or image.

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