Is It Plagiarism... Or Is It Wikipedia-Like Collaboration?

from the rethinking-plagiarism dept

Over the past few years, we've been forced to start rethinking the concept of plagiarism quite a bit, with help from folks like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonathan Lethem, who have both started to notice that creative works tend to build on those who came before -- and that derivative works can often be an artform by themselves, if not an inspiration for additional creative works. Still, there is something of a kneejerk reaction to the idea that plagiarism is bad -- potentially for very good reasons. Passing off someone else's work as your own isn't particularly nice and from a social standpoint, getting caught doing so can really damage someone's reputation. One of the biggest concerns these days, not surprisingly, is the increasing claims that students plagiarize all sorts of things from the internet -- even to the point where some feel that children today don't even feel that it's wrong to simply pass someone else's work off as their own.

A new study looking at "personal essays" written for university admission supports this theory by pointing out repeated examples of plagiarism, where applicants pretty clearly took "personal essays" that were from certain websites and used the ideas and personal experiences in them as their own. One of the most popular, apparently, was an essay about a fascination for chemistry that began with the applicant setting fire to his or her pajamas at age 8. Apparently, that particular scenario happened to 234 individuals... Or, more likely, just one of them, and the rest took the idea from the fact that the essay was posted to a site showing "successful" personal statements. Most of the essays weren't plagiarized directly -- they just built on the idea. Of course, rather than just condemning the concept, Jeremy Wagstaff has a very interesting observation. He suggests that perhaps many of the applicants don't think of it as "plagiarism" but more like wiki-style collaboration. That is, they've grown up in an age of internet collaboration where no one person "owns" the content, but that content is an ongoing process of ideas that anyone can participate in. In such a world, the idea of "plagiarism" has little meaning. Adding a paragraph to a Wikipedia entry isn't plagiarizing the rest of the entry.

Of course, some Wikipedia detractors may find this to be yet another troublesome sign -- that Wikipedia is teaching children to plagiarize. However, a more reasonable way of looking at it, is that it's teaching students the value of collaborative work, and building on the ideas of those who have come before them. That's a valuable lesson. None of this, of course, excuses passing off someone else's work as your own -- especially in a situation like a personal statement to gain admission into a university. However, it could help to explain the issues of plagiarism in students that shows it's not all about just getting off easy by copying content, and more about a more collaborative approach to content. If that's the case, the response shouldn't be to focus on the moral or ethical issues of "copying," but simply doing a better job of teaching students the borderline between collaborative work and independent work.
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  1. identicon
    misanthropic humanist, 9 Mar 2007 @ 10:08pm

    myth of originality

    Is there such a thing as an original idea? Does an idea ever die, or be born, or does it just hop from one host to another mutating as it goes? Potters "Cold Lazarus" explores this in asides, but very few people seem to really understand the "meme", that we are living through other peoples ideas and our own twists on them, when taken up by the world, simulateously immortalise us and rob us of ourselves.

    But you can't have it both ways. What you won't set free will never live. Creation is not an inviduals act, it is by definition an act of sharing. And for the creative producer, every true creator has the humility to recognise that ideas seem to come from a source that is not the true self, we are the sum of experiences and hand-me-down knowledge.

    Those "common memories" are a form of what used to be called folklore. We all have experiences and thoughts our conscious mind finds easier to express in the words of other people. I think Chomsky once said, though he rephrased Ayer, that without this gestalt communication would be impossible. Language is common not because of words and symbols we agree on, but because of meanings and interpretations we assign to them, it's all about the semantics.

    It's the ego clinging to identity that makes us believe ideas can belong, be owned by people. The pressure to be an individual in a grossly conformist world is what drives the urge to pretend we have special, unique thoughts. To be only one of 6 billion other minds that are largely the same is a frightening and depersonalising thought for many.

    But whether we recognise it or not we are each participants in a vast open market of ideas. The older you get you more you notice it happening. Phrases you coin or jokes you make up come back at you. And it doesn't matter who you are or whether you try, that's the way life is. Everyone at some time, quite by accident, gives birth to something that will outlive them. I notice the warm feeling Mike gets when anyone talks of the "Streisand Effect". I have my own expressions that when I hear them occasionally give me the good feeling of knowing I was instrumental in propagating or originating.

    When I hear people make egocentric claims it reminds me of the line in the Simpsons, "You know those annoying radio commercials where two people yabber back and forth.... I invented those!" ( As if that were something to be proud of)

    So you could say that plagarism doesn't exist, because we are all plagarists because we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of creativity.

    What does exist is lazyness, academic sloppiness, hubris, ego and insecurity from lack of identity that leads people to pretend to be what they are not. And there's nothing intriniscally wrong with coopting and profiting from other peoples ideas either, the wrongdoing is when people seek to create a deception of originality.

    The film and music business are havens for these types of people who lack the humility to understand their own cultural context and have the audacious conceit to pass off age old devices as their own. For example, the history of Disney is nothing but a litany of repackaged folklore.

    It doesn't help that we live in a system that recognises the concept of "intellectual property" and gives legal credence to it. If we truly understood art, science and creativity the concept of intellectual property would not exist at all.

    Somewhat circularly, intellectual property comes about and persists precicely because of those insecure and conceited people who can't stand to be part of the crowd and elevate themselves to glory and profit by claiming other peoples ideas as their own. It's a bit like the problem of drugs, where supply, demand and motive are all wrapped up in a self perpetuating mess. If we scrapped the very idea of intellectual property tomorrow nobody would have the motive to "steal" anothers work, because no such possibility would exist.

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