Guest blog: Cut and paste?

Cut and Paste?
by Dr Perry Share, Head of Department of Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Sligo


I was looking back at two earlier posts in this blog in April and July of this year, and was reflecting on how they relate relate to a topic that I have had a passing interest in (both intellectual and administrative) – that of plagiarism. Or, as I prefer to think of it, for reasons that will become apparent below, intertextuality.

Over the last year there was something of a mini-rash of alleged plagiarism cases at my institution. These were difficult to deal with, partly because the institution in question, like most of its counterparts in Ireland, does not have a well thought-through set of policies and procedures, which makes it rather exposed to even the idea of legal challenges; but also because any consensus that may have existed in relation to what plagiarism might be has become increasingly fragile in a world that is saturated with practices of re-use and re-purposing of intellectual property. It is no longer clear as to what it means to re-use another’s material and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

We live in a world where the reuse of written materials is ubiquitous, widely rewarded, sometimes celebrated and increasingly expected. Exhibit A is of course the Internet, where a Google search of any distinctive phrase will allow you the opportunity to trace its use and reuse through thousands if not millions of sites, though it may well be impossible to track down the original iteration. Exhibit B is the mass media, where pop music, popular film, fashion, advertising, commercial fiction, magazines routinely recycle and reuse concepts, phrases, images and storylines. Exhibit C is the world of routine administration, business and – yes – academia, where numerous documents, from contracts to safety statements to business plans to research funding applications are (re-) constructed unapologetically from commercially-available templates or, more often, from whatever worked before for somebody else.

Many academics and nearly all students have grown up in a world where the rules of intellectual property have been changing at a rapid pace. Most students live in a semiotic universe defined by the cut-and-paste culture of Bebo, YouTube, Photoshop and Facebook. They either download their music, images, TV shows and films illegally, or at least know people who do. They wear T-shirts that ironically (or unironically) reuse and recycle corporate logos and cultural imagery from the Mona Lisa to the GAA. They find most of their information in Wikipedia and Google Scholar and – quelle surprise! – put this into their essays and projects.

Just like the music and film industries, the academic system struggles to cope with this new culture of the copy. One way is to threaten stringent penalties for the ‘crime’ or ‘fraud’ of plagiarism, often so draconian that they are rarely if ever implemented. A second is to try to train students in the arcane rules and rituals of referencing and attribution – and of course the mastering of such techniques is a rite of passage of the successful scholar. A third approach is to seek a technological fix in turnitin.com – the ‘anti-plagiarism’ software that will allow for detection of the least sophisticated copiers. All of these approaches will of course have some ‘success’ in preventing students from copying material, or at least in making them feel guilty (or terrified, or confused) about it.

But what rarely happens is a fundamental questioning of why the culture of the copy is a problem in the first place. It is clear that without borrowing, cross-referencing, mimicry and copying – or intertextuality to give it a technical term – culture just could not exist. That which is completely original is of course uniquely unintelligible. In academia perhaps more than anywhere it is necessary to make products that are very similar to what has gone before – to show that you are really part of the academic community.

But in an age of ‘free culture’, ‘creative commons’, sampling, remixing, open-source, and on-line collaborative working, why do we continue to insist on the Romantic notions of ‘originality’ and individualistic intellectual production? Are there not ways that our teaching and learning practices can be remodelled to encourage genuine collaborative working, the constructive use and reuse of existing material, and the astute assessment of how to use templates, models and processes?

If the central theme of contemporary culture is the copy, how do we serve students by constantly urging them to come up with something ‘original’, while pretending that we are going to punish them if they don’t? Wouldn’t it be a lot better to help them to deal with the world as it really is?

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12 Comments on “Guest blog: Cut and paste?”

  1. iain Says:

    The problem of course is how to measure whether they have (a) spent more time on the task at hand than takes to do the google-cut-paste-email; (b) actually synthesised, analysed or intellectually engaged with the materials they have found so that more than the autonomic nervous system has experienced it; (c) have developed writing skills which would enable them in future to produce materials that others might want to plagiarise because they are of a high standard! 😉

    • Perry Share Says:

      Perhaps a response to these issues lies in more ‘authentic’ (not a word I particularly like) ways of assessing students’ learning. My perspective is that if students are involved in gathering and generating information that is of use to them, and that they actually care about, as opposed to going through some sort of assessment ritual, then they are more likely to be in a position to judge when it is useful to make some sort of use of existing knowledge/materials, and when to seek out original ideas or content.

      So, for example, if students agree that as part of a process of learning, that it would be useful to generate a web-based resource, they may learn a great deal about deciding which existing materials to incorporate into the webpage and which to reject and why.

      The biggest waste of time in contemporary education, I suspect, is caused by students (from primary to fourth level) Googling something, finding material in Wikipedia, rewording it a bit, then putting it into an essay/project for a highly-paid teacher/lecturer to ‘mark’. There has to be a more consructive use of people’s time and energy!

  2. Ros Says:

    It’s all too easy to associate the old ‘cut and paste’ label with students and forget that the great and the good in academia are also capable of chancing their arm now and again – as I was painfully reminded earlier this year whilst doing some reading around my research. I will not name the culprit, suffice it to say they are a world-renowned authority within the social sciences arena and, until my discovery, they were one of my heroes both in terms of what they had overcome in their life as well as through their intellectual achievements. There was no attempt made to disguise their plagiarism and the piece was not taken from some obscure source which they may not have expected to be accessed. It was just a blatant piece of intellectual theft by someone who has probably taken their own students to task over the same thing and showed a degree of arrogance and disdain for their readership that even now makes me feel angry. Given the age of the ‘perp’ I now wonder how many other times they got away with it.

  3. Sharon Says:

    Interesting post, thanks Perry. It highlights an important issue that we, as academics, do need to consider – what is it that we are actually assessing? We do need to think very carefully about our assessment methods and to ensure that they are designed to allow students demonstrate their learning.

    However, on the issue of “plagiarism”, we do have reason to be very concerned. Plagiarism (whether it is cut-and-paste, patchwork, sloppy writing, non acknowledgement, mis-acknowledgement, collusion or contract cheating) “allows students to by-pass learning”, to quote the excellent Jude Carroll at a recent conference.

    As you suggest, plagiarism, or academic integrity, needs to be situated as a teaching and learning issue, not a disciplinary one. If we can achieve this, then your three approaches (policies, information, technical tools) could be brought together in a holistic approach which would really benefit teachers and learners.

  4. Hugh Says:

    Either plagiarism is acceptable, or it isn’t, and I don’t believe that the “copy culture”, by blurring the definition, can be used as a justification for failing to deal with it. Re-use (stealing) of templates is a matter of commercial law, as is illegal downloading. Plagiarism is a matter of intellectual property law. If you give in to or acquiesce in the myth that these crimes are “all of a kind” and all an inevitable consequence of the copy culture, its easy to relieve yourself of the responsibility for dealing with the latter by saying that we haven’t got the means to deal with the former.
    Students are exactly that – students. You can’t expect 17-year-olds fresh from secondary school to understand instinctively that plagiarism is plain wrong and unacceptable, all the more so if society has told them that illegal downloading is cool. They need to be informed.
    Sanction is another matter, but consider this; if you as academics, for whatever reason turn a blind eye to plagiarism and release second-rate graduates into society, they’ll be found out very quickly, and employers may wonder how on earth they managed to get parchments.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Hugh – interesting points, but just a couple of responses to your response:

      1) ‘Either plagiarism is acceptable, or it isn’t’ – in workshops that I have conducted on plagiarism, I have found a wide variation in what people regard to be plagiarism, and what they regard as acceptable re-use. At one event, and I shouldn’t really have been surprised at this, a lecturer in architecture was of the view that plagiarism was not an issue, while a teacher of theology was not prepared to accept anything that even hinted at ‘copying’. So I would not agree that there is a clear consensus on this issue.

      2) ‘Plagiarism is a matter of intellectual property law’ – well it might be in the commercial court, but I doubt if any Irish undergraduate student has ever been sued for plagiarism. For me it is a matter of teaching and learning and how we might all adapt to a completely changed information environment to that in which we ourselves were educated.

  5. Sharon Says:

    Interesting article in today’s Guardian about academic plagiarism. Are teachers and students being treated differently?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jul/28/academic-plagiarism

  6. Debbie Says:

    “Fundamental questioning” is what turns didacticism into education:
    http://www.dukegiftedletter.com/articles/vol9no1_feature.html

  7. Nathan Says:

    Perry

    If I understand correctly, you argue that intertextuality (or plagiarism, as I like to call it) lies on a continuum of practices that is widely accepted, if not necessary, in current society. This seems an unnecessary complication of a simple rule based on honesty: if the idea or the words aren’t yours, give credit where it’s due. The principles have not changed since current educators were registered students, even if the technology has.

    Forms of copying are certainly widespread in every walk of life, but not all are widely accepted and not all are equivalent to plagiarism. When musician X samples musician Y, and Y has a competent lawyer, money changes hands and an acknowledgement appears in small print. Illegal downloading is easily distinguished from plagiarism, as it doesn’t entail an implicit or explicit claim of authorship. It is also clearly understood to be illegal. It’s not a new phenomenon either – before MP3s there were tape machines and photocopiers. Open-source material becomes open-source at the authors’ discretion and is clearly labelled as such.

    We “insist on the Romantic notions of ‘originality’ and individualistic intellectual production” because many consider them essential features of independent thinking. Of course we also absorb, develop and riff on the ideas of our predecessors. In academia, we have a very simple way to distinguish our original work from the recycled. We reference, not by “arcane rules and rituals,” but by a simple algorithm.

    It’s possible to imagine scenarios where plagiarism blurs into legitimate or creative re-use. In practice, however, I’ve seen many cases of suspected student plagiarism and every single one has been very clear.

    I believe educators do need to work harder on plagiarism-resistant assessment. A question like “explain X” makes a copy-paste response all too tempting – and in the famous “real world” the sensible answer might be “look it up.” More creative, distinctive and realistic assignments can be much less prone to plagiarism.

  8. Vincent Says:

    On plagiarism, the issue is not really the legal one, but the realisation that one is the last and current Mind at the end of a very long line. And hopefully with the ability to preserve and extend for the next lot.
    If the Scholar does not realise the influences then how on earth can he/she or it ever attempt to counter them sufficiently to write themselves.


  9. […] contributor, Perry Share, from the Institution of Technology in Sligo. He discusses the ‘Cut and Paste‘-issue, – as he prefers calling it – intertextuality. The problem of plagiarism […]

  10. Miss59 Says:

    Thanks for the great interview! ,


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