Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image. – Trip Gabriel, The New York Times
Scene: The Undergraduate Writing Center. Characters: Consultant and client. Plot: Client’s paper includes two paragraphs that stand out in Arial font from the rest of the Times New Roman paper. The consultant asks whether the client copied and pasted this material from an outside source.
Client: Yeah. I found that on this website about the death penalty.
Consultant: Okay. Did you…Are you planning on citing that? Like putting quotes around it and showing where it came from?
Client: Do I need to? The page didn’t have an author…
If you are a Writing Consultant (and I assume you are, if you’re reading this blog, or at least someone interested in Writing Centers), you have probably encountered a situation something like our hypothetical scenario above. If you haven’t, I can almost guarantee that at some point, you will.
Most students – and consultants – have heard of “plagiarism.” It’s the big, bad, scary word teachers trot out to remind students of the consequences of using someone else’s words or ideas as your own without giving the appropriate credit, as my syllabus puts it. Those consequences can run the gamut from failing an assignment to failing a class to being expelled from the university. Clearly, academics think plagiarism is a big deal, and we don’t want students to do it.
When I started teaching (and tutoring) college writing in 2001, plagiarism seemed like a simple concept. If you “borrowed” your roommate’s paper from last semester; swapped out your name for hers at the top; and turned it in to your professor as your original work, you had plagiarized. If you bought a paper from a “paper mill,” you had plagiarized. If you copied the text of a scholarly article into your essay and turned it in as though Author X’s words were yours, you had plagiarized.
Then, things started getting complicated. It wasn’t that the definition of plagiarism had changed. It was that youth culture’s understanding of “authorship,” or, as Trip Gabriel of The New York Times says, “the singularity of any text or image” – that any text or image can or should stand on its own, “owned” by a person or an institution, off-limits to anyone else who wants to “borrow” it – had changed.
Most discussions of plagiarism in the digital age point to the ubiquity of illegal downloading and file sharing online, which we academics have been quick to blame for what may seem like students’ blase attitudes toward the cardinal academic sin of PLAGIARISM. Universities spend ridiculous amounts of money on plagiarism policing tools like Safe Assign and TurnItIn, and yes, there are teachers who seem to live for the “thrill of the chase” – catching out that student who has plagiarized so they can bring the full wrath of the almighty institution down on said undergraduate’s head. And probably, in some cases, such wrath has been earned. After all, according to the Council of Writing Program Administrators, one of the reasons students give for making the decision to plagiarize is that they believe there will not be consequences, even if the plagiarism is detected.
Certainly, we don’t want to let students leave our universities operating under the assumption that it is “okay” to plagiarize because nothing will happen to you if you do. Yet blaming digital piracy for plagiarism still seems to me to be treating plagiarism like a crime, and plagiarizers like criminals. It’s as though we cannot escape our tendency as academics to conflate “plagiarizing” with “stealing.” But is it? If I copy the lyrics to a song my roommate wrote and claim them as my own on a track that goes on to sell millions of copies, we could with a straight face call that stealing, I suppose. But if, like the client in the above scenario, I copy and paste the words of a website into my paper for Freshman English 101, turn the paper in, receive an A, and no money whatsoever changes hands, have I “stolen” anything? Have I harmed the economy? Have I damaged, in a tangible way, the author of the website from which I plagiarized?
Rarely do I encounter students or clients who would steal from another person. Even more rarely do students whose intent is to plagiarize (to deliberately claim someone else’s words or ideas as their own) come to the Writing Center. Why would they bother, if they were just going to use what someone else had written and pass it off as their own? It helps here, I believe, to distinguish, as the Council of Writing Program Administrators has, between “plagiarism,” that which is intentional and deliberate, and “misuse of sources,” that which occurs because of a lack of understanding of how to use, cite, and document sources. Furthermore, I want to suggest that we start thinking about the underlying logic of plagiarism, or more accurately the misuse of sources, not in negative, criminalizing terms, but in positive, meaning-making terms:
The adolescents in our classrooms, many of whom were born just as the World Wide Web exploded (or later), regularly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, as well as blogs, wikis, instant messaging, texting, and YouTube…Today’s children and young adults use these forms of communication to engage in textual and visual production that is collaborative, patched together with pastiche and allusions, and shared in what has been characterized as environments of digital intimacy. – Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Kelly Sassi, “An Ethical Dilemma: Talking About Plagiarism and Academic Integrity in the Digital Age”
The pastiche, the patchwork, the collage, the collaboration – I cannot but think here of the sorts of meaning-making efforts that have come out of music, itself its own kind of “composition.” When I did a quick Google search for the term “mashup,” I was immediately directed to the Wikipedia page, which defines a “mashup” as “a song or composition created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs, usually by overlaying the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the instrumental track of another.” Interestingly, the entry’s authors go on to say that “to the extent that such works are ‘transformative’ of original content, they may find protection from copyright claims under the ‘fair use’ doctrine of copyright law,” citing the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video from the American University Center for Social Media as their source.
If copyright law is not being infringed, then a “mashup” (a pastiche; patchwork; collage; or collaboration) is not “stealing” from another artist, so long as the newly-mixed work becomes something unique (“original”) and contributory (“transformative”) through its re-mixing of others’ material. Doesn’t that sound to anyone else like what writers do? We are always building on others’ ideas, others’ research; we internalize grammar, syntax, spelling, and mechanics through reading the prose others have written. Of course mashups aren’t claiming to be “original” in the sense of having been written by an individual artist. The creativity, the transformation, the originality is in how the artist puts what has come before together – in how they collaborate with other texts.
I believe an inter-textual way of looking at use of sources in the digital age could be powerful for student writers, and for writing consultants, for it gives us an ethical basis quite apart from institutionalized consequences that can guide how we use others’ material. Whether an author is cited on a webpage or not, the ethics of intertextual collaboration dictate that we must still credit where words and ideas that are not our own came from. Yet we must do more than cite and document, as well. From the intertextual point of view, the point of writing with research is not to report on what others have said. It is to use what others have said to inform – to re-mix – new, fresh ideas that we, the writer, will combine in fresh, original new ways, transforming what has previously been done, thought, and said into a text that makes its own contribution to the academic conversation, that becomes a text other texts can collaborate with. Whether our text is a paper on the death penalty for Freshman English, a senior thesis on the Healthcare Affordability Act, or a blog post about plagiarism in the Writing Center, our ideas, blended with and striking out from the ideas of others, add a voice to this polyphonic, (inter)textual universe.
So…what do you think? If we taught students to think of writing as a mashup, a cutup, a crossover, or a powermix, would this make a difference in the way students use sources? Feel free to leave some comments below – I welcome ideas from what other consultants and writers think!
Dr. Sunny Hawkins, Undergraduate Writing Center Director
Texas A&M University-Kingsville
Gabriel, Trip. “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in Digital Age.” The New York Times. N.p., 01 Aug. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth, and Kelly Sassi. “An Ethical Dilemma: Talking About Plagiarism and Academic Integrity in the Digital Age.” English Journal 100.6 (2011): 47-53.