Plagiarism or Not? More Clicker Questions about Academic Integrity

i want those shadesIn my last post, I described the discussions that resulted in my first-year writing seminar from a few clicker questions on academic integrity. I attempted to help my students start to reconcile their opinions on what’s ethical and what’s not with the norms of the community they’ve now joined. In today’s class, we continued exploring this idea, focusing on one particular aspect of academic integrity: plagiarism.

Back in August when I first read Trip Gabriel’s New York Times article, “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in Digital Age,” I spotted a few examples of “digital plagiarism” that I thought would make useful clicker questions.

Question 1: While writing a paper on homelessness, you copy and paste some text from a website’s FAQ page. You don’t cite your source because the page doesn’t include author information. Plagiarism or not?

This was a bit of a gimme question. I had hoped that most, if not all, of my students would know that this is plagiarism. Indeed, 93% of them said this was plagiarism, and the one student who indicated it wasn’t said that he pressed the wrong button on his clicker. As a result, this question didn’t generate much discussion, but it did set things up nicely for my next slide, a quote from the NYT piece:

“At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site’s frequently asked questions page about homelessness–and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information.”

The students were a little surprised that someone tried to get away with that! I then showed them another quote from the NYT article:

“At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive–he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.”

Who would do such a thing? Well, my next clicker question (again drawn from an example in the NYT article) complicated the matter a bit:

Question 2: While writing a paper on the Great Depression, you paraphrase a few paragraphs you found on Wikipedia. You don’t cite your source because information on Wikipedia can be considered common knowledge. Plagiarism or not?

This time 20% of the students voted “not plagiarism,” and there wasn’t any indication that they had pressed the wrong button on their clickers. I asked my students how one could argue that this isn’t plagiarism, and they focused on the common knowledge aspect of this question. Some didn’t think that sources of common knowledge needed to be cited. One student noted that sometimes he finds information on Wikipedia that he already knows. If he already knows something, why would he need to cite Wikipedia if he paraphrases the site? Another student responded by questioning how one can draw the line between writing what you know and paraphrasing a source that says more or less the same thing.

Since part of my goal here was to familiarize my students with the local community norms on plagiarism, I showed them an excerpt from our honor code:

“Students should understand that sources of common knowledge can be plagiarized. Copying or close paraphrasing of the wording or presentation of a source of common knowledge constitutes plagiarism.”

That settled the common knowledge bit, but then we moved onto the Wikipedia part of this clicker question. I asked my students to indicate with a show of hands if their writing teachers in high school had given them explicit instructions about Wikipedia. Most, if not all, of my students hands went up at this point. I then asked them what their teachers had told them about Wikipedia. “Don’t use it!” was the response. One student elaborated, saying that he was instructed not to use Wikipedia as a source cited in his papers.

Another student said that he used Wikipedia to introduce himself to topics and to identify other sources (by looking through the footnotes at the bottom of Wikipedia entries) but that he would be “ashamed” to use Wikipedia as a source in a paper. I pointed out that it’s generally bad form to cite any encyclopedia, whether it’s Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Yet another student pointed out the fact that Wikipedia is crowdsourced. She said that if she wanted to, she go login to Wikipedia today and write an article saying whatever she wanted. Other students pointed out that it’s not quite that easy on Wikipedia anymore, that there are editorial processes in place to increase the reliability of Wikipedia articles.

I’ll admit that I was quite impressed with what some of my students knew about Wikipedia! I’m not an information literacy expert, but most of the points I usually hear made about student use of Wikipedia were made by my students today. (No one mentioned the discussion tab present on each page, which can be a useful tool, but that wasn’t entirely relevant to the plagiarism discussion anyway.)

For my next clicker question, I returned to the NYT article:

Question 3: German teenager Helene Hegemann’s best-selling novel about Berlin club life included several passages lifted from other novels. Plagiarism or not?

One of the main points made in the NYT article was that students raised in an age of music piracy and remix culture don’t have the same notions of authorship and intellectual property us old folks have. In fact, Hegemann’s response to the accusations of plagiarism wasn’t to deny it, saying instead, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Because of this, I expected some students to argue that what she did wasn’t plagiarism. Instead, 100% (yep, every single student) voted “plagiarism” on this one!

I shared Hegemann’s response with my students, but they didn’t buy it. One student called it a “cop out.” Since the students were all on the same page here, I played devil’s advocate. I tried to convey what I thought Hegemann’s point was, that if someone else’s words did a better job of describing an idea or an experience than her words did, then in an effort to be as authentic as possible, it was justifiable to use that other person’s words. That is, authenticity trumps originality.

This went nowhere with my students. In fact, they surface the two key principles that I wanted them to take away from our discussion of the academy’s notion of plagiarism:

  • You shouldn’t mislead your reader into thinking an idea or a phrasing is yours when it isn’t. (This is kind of like lying to make yourself seem smarter.)
  • You shouldn’t take credit for someone else’s idea or phrasing. (This is kind of like getting the royalties for someone else’s invention—it’s a loss for the originator of the idea.)

It was apparently clear to my students that Hegemann’s actions had violated both of these principles. One student noted that Hegemann could have quoted and cited her sources. This would have made for a lame novel, but at least she would have honored these two principles. I pointed out that there would still be copyright issues with that!

(Copyright is another example of a codified set of community norms, much like our honor code. However, copyright laws operate at national and international scales, unlike our local honor code. We didn’t get into a discussion copyright and intellectual property laws today, although we certainly could have given the direction of our discussion. I’m curious, when you talk about plagiarism with your students, do you address copyright as well?)

The discussion about these two principles of the academic community’s notion of plagiarism set the stage for my final clicker question. This one was inspired by a mention of rap music in that NYT article:

Question 4: Puff Daddy’s 1997 rap hit, “I’ll Be Missing You,” includes music and lyrics from the Police’s 1983 hit, “Every Breath You Take.” Plagiarism or not?

Prior to asking this question, I couldn’t resist playing the first 30 seconds of each of these songs to set that stage! When the Police song came up, one of my students said something about “the creepiest song ever,” which made me feel good to know that these kids know some of my music!

How did the students vote on this one? Interestingly, a third of them said that this wasn’t plagiarism. Two-thirds said it was. Within seconds, one student had already pulled up the Wikipedia page for “I’ll Be Missing You” on his laptop to try and find out if Puff Daddy had received permission from the Police to use parts of their song. Clearly, prior permission was an important factor for some students. (It would seem that Puff Daddy, aka Sean Combs aka Diddy, did get permission before releasing the song. Also, Police lead singer Sting performed this song with Puff Daddy at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards.)

Another student made the point that a lot of rap music includes samples of other songs, which is where I was going with this clicker question. Another student rattled off several songs that I didn’t recognize that were versions of or included samples from other, older songs, again reminding me that I’m not of my students’ generation! This all helped me make my key point here, that definitions of “plagiarism” vary with the community in question. In the rap music community, sampling another artist’s work isn’t considered plagiarism in part, I think, because doing so isn’t perceived as violating those two principle above. Academia works, well, a little differently!

Next time we break out the clickers to talk about plagiarism, we’ll drill down to the mechanics of academia’s version of plagiarism and look at quotation marks, paraphrasing, footnotes, and the like. I hope that these first two sessions on plagiarism have provided my students with a useful conceptual framework to go along with the mechanical rules they’ll need to learn here at college.

Image: “i want those shades” by Flickr user Daniel Incandela, Creative Commons licensed.

Puff Daddy’s 1997 rap hit, “I’ll Be Missing You,” includes music from the Police’s 1983 hit, “Every Break You Take.”

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