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
    DiNap44, 13 Mar 2009 @ 4:57am

    The question of "Common Knowledge"

    The one area I haven't hear a comment on is the one of "Commmon Knowledge. According to Indiana University's Writing Tutorial Services website:

    "Common knowledge: facts that can be found in numerous places and are likely to be known by a lot of people.

    Example: John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960.

    This is generally known information. You do not need to document this fact.

    However, you must document facts that are not generally known and ideas that interpret facts.

    Example: According the American Family Leave Coalition’s new book, Family Issues and Congress, President Bush’s relationship with Congress has hindered family leave legislation (6).

    The idea that “Bush’s relationship with Congress has hindered family leave legislation” is not a fact but an interpretation; consequently, you need to cite your source."

    With websites like Wiki, Answer.com, etc., one could argue that one does not have to fear Plagiarism when using facts on a subject in a research paper because it is now readily available on the web and came be consisted Common Knowledge. This would only cover facts on a subject, not copying other's experiences or opinions.

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