Adjunct Law Prof Blog

Editor: Mitchell H. Rubinstein
New York Law School

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Plagiarism On Line

Lines on Plagiarism Blur is an interesting Aug. 1, 2010 NY Times article. It is about how students of today do not realize that there is plagiarism on the internet. As the article states:


And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.

Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.

But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Mitchell H. Rubinstein

Misc., Legal | Permalink


And who taught the students?

Posted by: PTL | Nov 25, 2010 7:57:36 AM

Every syllabus for every class I have taken in college said quite clearly, "Wikipedia is not a valid source." Usually in all caps.

Posted by: DanH | Nov 25, 2010 8:26:47 AM

This is probably exacerbated by the fact that Wikipedia is explicitly under a "Creative Commons" license. Someone unsophisticated in the terms of art might imagine that this means it's common knowledge.

HOwever, an undergrad's ignorance of the ins and outs of a fairly controversial area in copyright law is no excuse.

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) | Nov 25, 2010 8:38:42 AM

Let me point out that going into excruciating detail about plagiarism and how to cite even Wikipedia [which I'd prefer they use only for guidance to other articles] doesn't prevent even reasonably intelligent students from using non-cited work. It seems to be a losing battle.

Also, they don't seem to grasp that: a) we recognize when they're not writing in "their own voice", and; b) if they found it online so can we.

[my favorite was a very obviously deliberate plagiarism of "The New Hampshire Handbook for Local Government Officials." ;->=

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | Nov 25, 2010 8:41:23 AM

I don't allow wikipedia in my classes either-- though I have to admit I use it myself as a launchpad for research.

Something else needs to be raised, though: more than once, I've found sections or whole pages copied from Wikipedia on other websites. The plagarism goes in both directions: sometimes wikipedia copies (illegally, and against their own guidelines) from copyrighted sources, and sometimes it's the published works which plagarize. In our zeal to highlight wikipedia in particular, are we missing the larger issue by not warning students that unreviewed articles on the internet are every bit as unreliable?

Posted by: asdf | Nov 25, 2010 8:45:14 AM

Reminded of a stand-up comedian from '60s-'70s TV, Milt Kamen, who said, "I write articles for 'Reader's Digest', It's very easy -- you copy them from another magazine and send them in."

Posted by: triplesec | Nov 25, 2010 8:57:20 AM

I teach English compostion to college freshmen. For the most part, they are either oblivious to the fact that they are plagiarizing or could care less.

Too many students today when confronted with their own plagiarsm say "so?". Sad times.

Posted by: Bill | Nov 25, 2010 10:34:10 AM

Perhaps these students' stunted understanding of thievery is abetted by their being consumers and not producers of digital content. Perhaps they need to see someone else profiting from their work, without credit or remuneration given, to understand their transgressions. Since the new generation eschews talk of transgression, and defaults to a paradigm of wounded relationships, they need to see their best friend steal from them to understand. Or go back to the pen & paper exam book with the topic provided at the start of the exam--no notes and with a cell phone jammer blanketing the room.

All in all, I think college kids are pretty quick. They see their profs lauding socialism, which is organized theft, and they want to get it on the act too. Monkey see, monkey do.

Posted by: Dean from Ohio | Nov 25, 2010 10:44:16 AM

Students do not grasp plagiarism as serious because it is not treated seriously by administrators. Failure of the course on the first offense and expulsion on the second will help confused students understand very quickly.

Posted by: John Farrier | Nov 25, 2010 2:14:34 PM

That is one possible reason but as a writing teacher myself, I say the real underlying basis for the problem is that college students no longer come into university knowing how to write. Nine times out of 10, the English 101 and 102 classes meant to counter that are taught by TA's who barely know how to write themselves, never mind teach in two semesters what students should have learned over the course of grade and high school.

Posted by: Leigh T | Nov 25, 2010 2:38:37 PM

Just think, one day he could be Vice-President!

Posted by: RickC | Nov 25, 2010 2:41:35 PM

The problem is not the Internet Age making words and whatnot more common. The problem is that students are not disciplined for plagiarism in the first 12 years of their education. While it is tempting to redirect the blame to our changing technological and cultural landscape for the appalling ignorance, incompetance, illiteracy, and innumeracy of the college freshmen I have had to teach, I cannot come to any conclusion except that primary educators have simply abdicated their responsibility because they have simply found it easier, for whatever reason, to simply funnel the students to the next grade without expecting them to have learned anything.

Posted by: Josh s | Nov 25, 2010 3:15:58 PM

It doesn't help that many students are terrible at writing. When a college student or a high schooler finds that an assignment is too tough -- meaning, their homophone errors, spelling and grammar mistakes, awkward sentences and disorganized blather cause the teacher or professor to dock them points -- they tend to seek an easy solution. It's far simpler (in their mind) to copy from Wikipedia and maybe re-write a little than to actually practice writing until they become competent at it.

This is unfortunate, and I don't really know what the solution is. When numerous juniors and seniors at a California State University show me that they can't write their way out of a paper bag, what can I or anyone else do to fix the problem?

Some of these kids just don't read, and so they can't recognise the errors they make; many of them additionally do not care. Writing isn't a part of their life, not really, and when it does intrude it bothers them. I've had students tell me it's not fair that a professor from some other class knocked them down for spelling and grammar -- it's not English, it's history! Why should clarity (or readability) matter?

Of course Wikipedia gets plagiarized. The kids can't write, and they want As and Bs anyway -- or, at least, they expect the upper-level writing courses to pass them. For existing, I guess. Because there would be a furor if the kids were flunked for writing incompetence, and we can't have THAT, so the students graduate with a degree that fools people into thinking the bearer can write well.

Posted by: Amanda | Nov 26, 2010 8:50:29 PM

Did not know to attribute Wikipedia? Rubbish! There's a copyright notice at the bottom of every page. It states, "Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply." There's a link to what "Creative Commons license" means. There's a link to "disclaimers". And since when is information in "an encyclopedia" regarded as "common knowledge"? If it were "common knowledge," why'd he need a encyclopedia. There's no excuse for laziness, and no excuse for not demonstrating the skills taught in the class. And copying is copying, even off of Wikipedia.

Posted by: Mike Reichold | Nov 27, 2010 7:34:58 PM

And since when has using an encyclopedia been acceptable for college work? Any encyclopedia? Let alone one that's susceptible to vandalism! By the time you're out of high school, you need to have better skills than copying from a bleeding encyclopedia! Like actually reading and hearing and thinking and coming up with something original.

Posted by: Mike Reichold | Nov 27, 2010 7:38:57 PM

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