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Is Internet File-Sharing Causing a Surge of Undergraduate Plagiarism?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Is Internet File-Sharing Causing a Surge of Undergraduate Plagiarism?"

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Trip Gabriel has a provocative piece out arguing that plagiarism is on the rise among undergraduates, and that this increase is driven by a shift in values induced by the internet:

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.

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

This all strikes me as extremely dubious. For one thing, they don’t appear to have any real data to indicate that cheating is on the rise. For another thing, any analysis of this subject has to account for the fact that the Internet has made plagiarism radically easier to detect. Finding some old book or article and copying a section of it was always fairly easy for any student with access to a good university library. It’s true that computers make this somewhat easier, but the difference is marginal. By contrast, digital search makes it dramatically easier for a suspicious teacher to check and see if a dubious passage is copied from somewhere, and the ongoing process of digitizing humanity’s store of knowledge will make this easier and easier in the future.

What’s more, the idea that the Internet is eroding the concept of authorship seems extremely dubious. This here blog is on the Internet. But it’s author is clearly identified. I link to a lot of things other people write, and I identify those people. Music is just the same. I’ve been listening to NPR’s stream of the new Arcade Fire album. Thanks to the Internet you can, if you’re so inclined, download a copy of this album without paying for it. But in order to find it you have to know that it’s the new Arcade Fire album, and the same is generally true of all music downloads. Whether you’re talking about acquiring digital music legally through Emusic or the iTunes store or whether you’re talking about BitTorrenting it the only way to find things is by correctly applying the concept of authorship.

I suppose it’s true that Wikipedia puts up a lot of non-copyrighted content whose authorship is somewhat hard to discern. When I use images from their “Wikimedia Commons” (like for this post!), I link back to where I found the image but don’t normally do an author credit. But Wikipedia seems to me to be very exceptional in this regard.

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