One out of 100 people in the U.S. are in jail or prison. Margaret Seltzer aka Margarat B. Jones committed the taboo of presenting Love and Consequences as her memoir, not the fiction it really is. The WPA mailing list adds yet more threads about plagiarism and dishonesty to the archives. Why does it seem like the problem of plagiarism is escalating? I think DeVoss and Porter, in Why Napster Matters to Writing: Filesharing as a New Ethic of Digital Delivery are onto something:
From a rhetorical perspective, Napster represents a crisis in delivery, the often-neglected rhetorical canon…Napster should matter to writing teachers because it represents a paradigm shift: from an older view of writing as alphabetic text on paper, intended for print distribution, to an emergent and ill-understood view of writing as weaving digital media for distribution across networked spaces for various audiences engaged in different types of reading….But the shift is not merely a shift in genre…There is also an economic shift, a shift in the terms of rules and ethics governing the sharing and distribution of writing, what rhetoric has traditionally called delivery. (179-180).
This crisis in delivery, involving understanding and correct use of copyright law, extends beyond the digital to print. The boundaries blur; the rate of noncompliance increases; the speed of detection accelerates. The crisis, as I see it, is no longer so much limited to the act as a cultural shift in values. Are we retreating from the idea of individualistic authorship to a more sustainable collectivization of common knowledge on the fast track—copyrighted material moving swiftly into the realm of fair use? (Devoss & Rosati, “It Wasn’t Me, Was it?: Plagiarism and the Web, Computers and Composition 154-55)
Certainly we must design assignments that encourage synthesis of sources and critical thinking that defy quick and dirty unattributed copying from internet or paper text sources. When I think about the time it takes to track down suspected plagiarism, document it, and report it through appropriate institutional channels, it makes me tired. But it also makes me concerned about fairness. Even though I uncover a smattering of plagiarism in my students’ writing (practiced by students intentionally sometimes, unintentionally often), I suspect it’s a little like the saying about mice: if you see one, there are another 20 in the house. If preventing plagiarism is futile, how do we go about reinventing the idea of authorship?
As I read the opening of Karla Saari Kitalong’s A Web of Symbolic Violence, I recognized many people I know in the code copying and subsequent questioning of ethics. Over and over I have been told to look at page source to find what I need. In the announcements for an online scheduling page that I help maintain, I was frustrated with the lack of formatting options. I looked at page source for the rest of the document, copied and pasted some code, and got what I needed: now the announcements are more accessible as technical documents.
- Is copying code for such purposes plagiarism, dishonest? When does it cross the line? When code copying is encouraged as a way of learning, how do we, as teachers, identify a line of demarcation?
- My brief journey into MySpace involved going to a template page and copying page source for a background. Was that plagiarism? How do we make sense of availability versus authorial rights?