Citing your sources is an information literacy practice and theory that librarians are routinely called upon to teach. So whenever plagiarism makes national news librarians like to share it with others. The latest article comes from the New York Times, Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age by Trip Gabriel. On campus we’ve been talking about this for many years. Faculty and librarians fret about students lifting entire passages from Wikipedia. There’s discussion about whether we should purchase the software Turnitin.com to better police plagiarism. And then there are always end of the semester emails from professors asking, “Does this paper sound familiar to you?”
The article, like many New York Times articles, isn’t the first to report on this, but as part of a larger series on cheating in education, this article tries to get beyond the fear of rampant plagiarism (true or false) to the larger question of, “Is all plagiarism really wrong?” This question has greater societal impact. And many believe that how college students answer that question is heavily influenced by their familiarity with and the fluidity of digital texts.
Trip’s article led me to the 2009 book by anthropologist Susan D. Blum, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Her ethnographic study tries to capture the internal workings as to why students plagiarize. Her book covers many questions from the ethical to the legal. As I’ve been reading it these past couple of days, one question keeps surfacing, “Is learning still a goal pursued on college campuses?”
Blum and the students she interviews talk a lot about grades, success, career goals, morality, friendship, originality, and authenticity, but they don’t talk a lot about learning. Given many competing forces students will often plagiarize to get by- to get the grade, to complete the assignment, to study for another test, etc. But no one is mentioning the regrettable fact that by plagiarizing someone else’ work you’re missing out on the opportunity to learn for yourself.
This may sound terrible, but I’m less concerned with the reality of plagiarism and more concerned with students seeing university as a stepping stone to the next phase in life as opposed to a time of learning and intellectual enrichment that they will carry with them throughout life.