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Plagiarism, Copyright, and the Information Age

Recently I met a young man who worked his way through college by cranking out research papers for an online term-paper store. The company sells “model” research papers, many made to order, so my young acquaintance might find himself writing about quantum mechanics one week and Stalin’s concentration camps the next. The job gave him lots of practice writing on short deadlines. He also picked up quite a bit of knowledge in many different fields. And of course, he got paid for helping someone else with more money than skill or discipline pass a course at some college.

He contributed to plagiarism, right?

Okay, how about this: Over the past thirty years, I’ve met several other people who make a living ghost-writing novels. Publishers use house names like Kenneth Robeson and Franklin W. Dixon to provide a sense of continuity for a line of books, but those two authors don’t really exist. Instead, a stable of writers is used to do the writing as work for hire. These writers get paid for helping a publisher that has more money and clout than time to continue a profitable line of stories. The same thing happens when a celebrity with more name recognition than writing skill lands a lucrative book contract and hires an uncredited person to write it. Or, frankly, when the long-dead Walt Disney affixes his name to yet another animated feature written and drawn by a seraglio of work-for-hire creatives.

But none of that is plagiarism; it’s just good business, right?

Scholars, and educators, pretend that plagiarism is a clear-cut issue of moral dishonesty, that words and ideas intrinsically belong to the person who “originated” them (as if anyone ever originated anything “in a vacuum”). But students grow up in a world of copyright, in which McDonalds can ridiculously trademark the phrase “I’m lovin’ it” (like no one ever said those words before)—a world in which a song written by Paul McCartney ends up “owned” by Michael Jackson, if not by some faceless record company, but can easily be passed from computer to computer. And before we criticize that file sharing too quickly, we have to recognize that many musicians actually encourage this sort of sampling, as a way of reaching new audiences.

Nor has scholarliness always meant citing sources. Medieval and Renaissance writers, for example, were prone to borrow from earlier works with no documentation at all, assuming that their readers would recognize the source, and if not, that the information was simply more important than its origins.

So what are we to do about plagiarism today?

I believe we simply have to treat students as adults. If they grasp the significance of documentation for the sake of ongoing scholarly discussion, they will more likely care about whether they have cited a source or not. If they view themselves as members of that discussion, with a vested interest in its direction, they will have a reason to back up their arguments with documented sources.

On the other hand, if we focus too punitively on “theft” of this phrase or that, we’re just shouting into the growing wind of the Information Age, in which knowledge is viewed as an ever more “open-sourced” commodity and copyright is increasingly perceived as mere mercantilism.

Let’s show students—by sharing our own writing—where, why, and how we give credit to our sources. They are more likely to follow our example than to listen to our words.

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