The Joys of Plagiarism

1Plagiarism is wonderfully productive. It has spawned reams of policy documents, countless ‘model essay’ Web sites selling prefab or custom-written ‘examples’ of coursework, not to mention the database software used by universities to catch their clients and anyone else whose work presents a recurrence of a previously-seen paragraph, page or whole essay. That is not all. Plagiarism hearings at schools up and down the international educational hierarchy are a veritable job-creation scheme in themselves, now that every student’s first port of call when setting out on a research journey is Google, not the nearest library.

2Spare a thought for the futility of these endless exercises in the means of correct training: The accused sits in front of a presiding teacher (who sometimes is the accuser, sometimes not) with one or two other faculty who act as witnesses, jury or judges, depending on the system at hand. Of course, I can’t be specific about the hearings I’ve attended, but they tend to be dismally identical: The accusation is made, the consequences listed, the evidence presented and then the accused may offer explanations, mitigating circumstances, and other arguments in his/her defence. In these circumstances, the role of plagiarist is usually performed in the voice of one of three stock-characters: The unrepentant (‘OK, you caught me, so what? Do what you like.’), the complicit (‘This is so unfair! Everybody does it.’), and the ignorant (‘I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to!’).

3All of them are treated as sinners, but if plagiarism is a sin, what is the temptation? Those plagiarists meeting their fate at colleges and universities across the wired world, and all the others who are getting away with it, have been tempted to dip into texts that are freely or commercially accessible online, and to snatch snippets or whole chunks of those texts to present as their own. Why? The simplest answer is the desire to complete an assignment with the least effort. However, it won’t suffice to stop there and join the inquisitors. Lazy students existed long before Web pages and search engines were invented. There is something more happening here, and it has to do with the cultural transformation of the practice of writing.

4Student writers are faced with a wealth of material that is, if not authorless, then at least free of the ubiquitous authorial branding of conventional publishing. This is particularly true of scholarly material, often publicly funded, sponsored by grants, and made accessible on Web sites like M/C Journal. Alternatively, there exist various ‘open source’ writing projects taking place online, in weblogs (written by individuals or teams) and collectively produced ‘wikis‘. The Wikipedia is a good example of this kind of communitarian writing project. It’s an encyclopedia which the users can modify, regulated by the corrections and changes that other users make to the previous versions of an entry. It is a text constantly subjected to new updates, add-ons and hyperlinks. This variability is characteristic of all ‘new media objects’ (Manovich 36-40), and for writing it means that the draft-stage is never over – there are only successive versions.

5‘But what about reliability, the authority of the sources?’ ask the scholarly-minded among us, myself included. Excepting peer-reviewed online journals, what guarantees do we have that the material our students are referencing or copy/pasting is worth the server-space it was stored on? For that, there is a tantalising answer; namely, another kind of authority which springs from the inherent inequality of Web links. We can illustrate this by the seemingly egalitarian practice of blogging. Anyone can start a weblog, and put their (and others’) work out into the online commons. Blogs contain not just text, but also images, audio, and music – they are highly flexible media platforms. Their content is free to see, hear, copy, even tinker with (or ‘version’), so long as the user links back to the original site. The link is the crucial reward, indicating that someone thinks this site worthy of attention.

6This is why blogs and other avenues of open source intellectual work are seemingly egalitarian. Linkage is the currency of all online content, and the organising principle of its hierarchy: The more links to a site, the greater its authority. Google does this for web pages in general, by cataloguing them and organising search query results by the number of links to the relevant websites. In a more specific way Technorati does the same thing for weblogs, measuring the ‘authority’ of a blog by how many others link to it. Finally, takes the link-currency analogy all the way, operating a market for trading ‘shares’ in blogs. The valuation of each blog depends on the combined value of incoming links, which means that if I get linked by a particularly popular blog my stock goes up. In other words, there is a great deal of prestige or social capital to be gained by putting one’s work out into the online commons if – and this is a big if – it eventually gets noticed, cited, copied, distributed, engaged with, and linked.

7Linkage is currency because it represents a scarce resource, the attention of people. The low opportunity cost of starting a blog and the large number of bloggers make for a highly competitive environment, if a blogger’s objective is to get noticed. Jason Kottke has provided a concise illustration of this in a short article titled ‘Weblogs and Power Laws‘, which also contains a useful list of links (what else?) to further reading. Of course, counting citations has been a commonplace measure of a scholar’s authority for a long time, but when practiced on the Web in the form of linkage the old objection to citation-statistics is still pertinent: Just because someone gets cited does not mean the citations are favourable, and it doesn’t measure the quality of the scholarship. But it does measure the ability to gain and hold the attention of readers; the ‘stickiness’ (Gladwell 89-91) of a Web site, an author, or a piece of software is what counts.

8This is the media-situation in which students find themselves tempted. Plagiarism, far from being some sort of Internet-borne plague on the house of education, is a symptom of an emerging mode of reading and writing as usage – as participation in the creation of a social network of texts (e.g., blogrolls, comments-sections and social bookmarks sites like Learners are easily baffled by linkage. They wander between Web sites, they browse, and sometimes they copy/paste material together. And sometimes they get caught. In other words, they need to be trained to take charge of their reading, processing and writing.

9The pedagogical challenge is to help students to participate in all of this. If our students can easily copy/paste out of the commons of the Web, and in a pinch buy an ‘example’ to pass off as their own, are not all summative essays and term papers now suspect? Furthermore, if this means the practice of basing a student’s mark on whatever product is handed in at the end of a course is now doomed to sink under the weight of endless plagiarism hearings, then that’s good news. At least it’s good news for those of us convinced that higher education is not about depositing information in the brains of our students, but rather to help them master the necessary information-skills; that is, to collect, assess, and utilise information on their own, and to integrate it into their practice.

10Learning to write is a lifelong process of finding one’s own voice, wrestling with the structural constraints of the sentence, the paragraph and the form. The way to spot a plagiarist is to notice the style, but style goes beyond words. It is the signature of independent thinking, of a successfully educated person who has passed beyond mere competence in a set of skills to creatively master them by means of apprenticeship, imitation and experimentation (Dreyfus 32-49). To put this in more concrete terms, encouraging continuous process over product is a feasible tactic to discourage plagiarism and the purchase of prefab essays online, because it forces the would-be plagiarist to reverse-engineer an outline, rough draft and other precursors to the final draft. When process matters, plagiarism becomes more trouble than it is worth. This tactic belongs to a larger strategy: What is at stake here is more than simply discouraging cheating; rather, there is now an opportunity to reassert the specific values of the humanities against the ubiquitous utilitarian reduction of higher education to mere knowledge-transfer, skills-training and the granting of credentials which may or may not provide an advantage in the job market.

11The now-pervasive temptation to plagiarise represents a chance for teachers to privilege process over product, and to teach the ethics of credit, attribution and linkage as immanent to that process. Wikis, blogs, and the mutual link-exchanges between online producers are now the facts of life for writers who interact, collaborate, and promote their work online. These practices afford new opportunities to think through the ethical principles of the online commons, not least what it means to give credit in social rather than monetary terms: Link and you shall be linked back to.