September 02, 2009

A Plague of Plagiarism?

There's been some discussion on the Editors' Association of Canada mailing list recently about plagiarism and how to detect it. Here are my perceptions of overall trends:

I believe there is an ongoing technological and cultural shift that is blurring the issue of plagiarism in people's minds. We have become a copycat, copying world, and the digitization of content has made it effortless to make exact copies of text, graphics/photos, audio and video. This is not by any means a new idea or concern, and I'm sure there is research on this trend, but here are a few words off the top of my head.

In my youth we learned relatively simple analog copying from LP to cassette, from TV to VCR; however, such copying took as much time to accomplish as the length of the original recording. Now everything is digital files that can be copied and transferred from medium to medium in seconds or minutes at the click of a mouse. Kids have grown up with digital audio players (iPods et al), personal video recorders (PVRs) that amass hundreds of hours of one's favourite TV programs, and computers and the 'Net.

This digitization also makes it easy to non-destructively break down files and use snippets of original works. Kids are now encouraged to do "mashups" using text, graphics, audio and video, and web designers "suck" and "scrape" data from all over the 'Net for inclusion in re-purposed or re-branded websites. It's par for the course for bloggers and Twitterers to copy and use ideas/data, though most abide by precepts of acknowledgment, including citation, mutual linking, blog rolls and the RT (reTweet) function.

When I did my MA a couple of years ago after a 20-year hiatus from the halls of higher learning, I was pleased, amazed, and finally shocked at how easy it was to "do research" by logging into the university library from the comfort of one's home computer, and copy and paste relevant bits from peer-reviewed papers in respected journals downloaded in their entirety from databases. I kept such notes and quotations in a different font to make sure they stood out on the screen as I wrote papers. A far cry from physically entering the library, combing through the card catalogs and stacks, and taking notes by hand on 3 X 5 cards!

I have encountered situations in which people have copied copyrighted and trademarked material wholesale and passed it off in their "own works" -- entire swaths of writing, not just a sentence here or there -- only to have them deny that they'd done anything wrong. Pressing the issue resulted only in anger, incredibly (to my mind) broad definitions of "fair use," or a blanket dismissal that I wasn't with it.

Now I believe there are upsides to this technological/cultural revolution. I'm a fan of open-source movements that originated in software development and are gradually encompassing photography, audio/video production, and publishing. I appreciate the benefits of "open-source learning," which entails a lot of collaborative group work in educational settings. The key here is that people who honestly contribute original work are recognized by their peers in a self-policing atmosphere of mutual respect, acknowledgment, and encouragement.

Whether or not the positive influences of such open-source concepts overcome the temptations of cut-and-paste plagiarism remains to be seen. The bottom line is not technology, despite my focus on technological developments. Technology doesn't set ethical standards, though I wonder if it can undermine them. It's the people using the technology that need to know better.

Perhaps the cookie jar of original research and artistic production has become too easy to access and copy. A strange statement coming from me, since I despise DRM (digital rights management) and censorship. But I realize that I am human, and when there are cookies easily accessible, I know I'll be tempted to gobble them up, though if I had to bake them from scratch I'd think twice about the effort. At least I know that I wouldn't pass off store-bought cookies, or the neighbour's muffins, as my own!

I see that my argument is getting mired down, and my mind is not keeping up with my fingers on the keyboard, so I'd better quit now before I get stuck. Time to get back to work. Perhaps I'll write another mini-essay extending this topic another day.

Posted by Paul at September 2, 2009 12:39 PM