Intellectual Property and Plagiarism

In the NCTE piece, the writer quotes Michael Day of Northern Illinois University: “Many of our students are first-generation college students and are somewhat clueless about plagiarism and intellectual property issues. Still others have been raised in the era of the free Napster and other music-downloading programs, and come to us with the attitude that if something is available on the Web, they have every right to use it in whatever way they see fit.” The first part of this statement assumes a relationship between social class and knowledge of academic dishonesty. Whether it’s true, it’s a loaded claim, and could stand for a more concrete study. I’m more interested, however, in the second part, and assumptions about how students relate to information in the age of the Internet.

This article is admittedly a little outdated. There’s the Napster reference and the use of the word “cybrarian.” I do think, though, that Day’s comment marks a perception that’s intensified over time, even as the Internet’s become commonplace. The “sharing economy,” social media, and streaming services have no doubt blurred ideas of who owns what. People take credit for other people’s work all the time. But Day’s point strikes me as alarmist insofar as it suggests students no longer possess a workable concept of authorship. The “in whatever way they see fit” implies a disruption of both quantitative and qualitative notions of value. A student might illegally download an album, but it’s unlikely he would say to a friend, “Hey do you want to hear my new song?” That is, it may be true that this generation of students feels “every right” to what they find online, but the concept of ownership is complicated, and we’re doing students a disservice when we conflate the financial and, say, ethical aspects of intellectual property.

I know students cheat, and it’s easier to cheat than ever before. I think teachers and administrators need to develop clear and non-negotiable guidelines about plagiarism. But I would never say that students should ask for permission to use a video in their PowerPoint presentations. Even if I had a class blog, I’d refrain from Ted Nellen’s suggestion—also in the NCTE piece—that they’re producing “published work.” That not only seems occasion to psych the students out or create an illusory sense of stakes; it also inculcates students with a notion of ideas-as-property that we should, in the classroom, be addressing from a critical perspective. I appreciated Shih-Chieh Chien’s piece because I’d never quite thought about plagiarism in a cross-cultural context. For our purposes, such an approach could invite self-reflection about the meaning of intellectual property—what about it we should value and what we should consider with scrutiny. We all scan and send articles. This alone could be grounds for a conversation with students about the complexities of citation and copyright. Students are perhaps better prepared than ever before to consider the way ideas circulate, as well as the nuances of credit, in both the citational and financial senses of the word. After all, JSTOR is just like Spotify, only it costs a lot more.

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