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?