Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age: Theoretical Concerns

This post is co-written by Garry Moorman and Carla Meyer.

Writing about plagiarism brings a discomfort to us as authors about whether we are plagiarizing. We need to acknowledge upfront that many of the ideas we post here are based on the paper Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age,published in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy in September of 2012. You should also note that we have limited references; for those interested in where our ideas come from, please consult the article.

 It is clear that the digital revolution and the Internet in particular demand a reevaluation of the concept of plagiarism. In the history of literacy, the concept is relatively new. It coincides with the wider distribution of text resulting from the printing press as well as a capitalist view of property and ownership. Historically, the concept did not appear until the 18th century. This view assumes that written ideas have value and can be owned, bought and sold.  Moreover, cultures conceptualize plagiarism in very different ways. For example, in China, there is no ownership of intellectual ideas, and the Amish see no problem with copying directly from text (Fishman, 1981). 

Our view of plagiarism is not compatible with the capitalistic viewpoint. It is based on a social constructivist perspective. We believe that all ideas have a social history and therefore ownership of ideas is impossible to determine. Knowledge is constructed through language use over time by multiple thinkers who use language to build common understandings. Learning occurs when individuals become active participatory members of “communities of practice” (e.g. Rogoff & Lave, 1999; Wenger, 1998). The influence of digital technologies, particularly the Internet and social networking media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has resulted in a shift in how these communities construct, share, and evaluate knowledge. An open dialogue among educators as well as between teachers and students is definitely in order.

Clearly, today’s students view plagiarism differently because they do not have the same perceptions of the value of intellectual property. They have come of age during an era in which the sheer volume of information available via the Internet makes definite ownership nearly impossible. They don’t see taking words or ideas from a collective of intangible authors as stealing intellectual property. In addition, much of the content on the Internet is free. In their lives outside of school it is second nature for youth to download, copy, and paste. Their concept of ownership is quite different than the one their teachers and professors have grown up with and come to take for granted. Intellectual property, a complex idea to begin with, is in need of additional analysis and definition by both students and faculty.

Given these ideas, we would like to propose the following questions for discussion:

·      Is there a common agreement on what constitutes plagiarism?

·      If all ideas have a social history, what is the line between common knowledge and plagiarism?

·      How has Internet changed current views of plagiarism?


Evering, L., & Moorman, G. (2012). Rethinking plagiarism in the digitalage. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56,35-44.

Fishman, A. (1981). Amish literacy: What and how it means. Portsmith: Heinemann.

Rogoff, B., & Lave, J. (1999). Everyday cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998).Communities of practice: Learning as a social system.

Image on front page by fintbo and available on flickr


This is a really interesting way of thinking about plagiarism and what it means. In my mind I have always considered plagiarism as taking someone's exact words and claiming that they are your own. I realize that is a very basic way of thinking about it but I feel like it one that we need to take into consideration when having this discussion. I think the idea of just copying words full cloth has become so synonymous with plagiarism that it makes it harder to have any other conversations about the idea of taking ideas and not just the words.

You talk about the line between common knowledge and plagiarism and I wonder how much consideration students have for that line. In my mind if I am doing research and I see the same basic concept being discussed everywhere I look I am going to be more inclined to treat it as common knowledge but I would still be weary of not citing things. I feel that our culture has moved so far from the idea of common knowledge and into the realm of capitalistic ownership of ideas that it makes of trigger happy so we feel the need to cite everything even if it doesn't seem to really merit it.

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