The NYT has an interesting article on the apparent increase in plagiarism by college students. Why is this happening? One explanation the story offers is that “many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.” And this, in turn, is the fault of the Internet:
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.
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.
I don’t find this explanation persuasive, and I reject calls to define plagiarism down. The mash-up culture is not a culture of plagiarism. Those who copy music, lift riffs, or appropriate images don’t usually claim authorship of the original source material or claim it as their own. They use this material in works of their own, while freely acknowledging its provenance. The creativity and originality comes from finding the right source material and putting it to good use, not from denying the original source. Whether such copying and appropriation should be legal, it’s not the same as plagiarism, as it’s sourced. Web links often serve as source attributions, and even Wikipedia pages demand footnotes. Even in the Internet Age, we recognize the difference between incorporating the work of another and passing it off as one’s own.
Another possible explanation for the apparent rise in plagiarism is that many college students are simply unprepared for the type of academic work that is expected of them and engage in plagiarism even though they know it’s wrong.
At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.
Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”
“Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice,” he said.
I find this explanation more persuasive. I also think the apparent rise in plagiarism is of a piece with the apparent rise in cheating by students generally. The problem is not that academic standards are too strict for the Internet Age. Rather, it’s that students are not taught that such standards really matter.
UPDATE: Has plagiarism actually increased? I agree with some of the commenters below that technology has made plagiarism easier — that is, it’s easier to copy-and-paste on a computer than it is to copy something manually. So, like anything else, as the cost of copying has dropped, we should see more of it. At the same time, the cost of catching plagiarism has probably declined as well — I’ve certainly discovered cases by searching passages from a student paper on Westlaw or Google — so the detection rate could have increased as well. So, it is probably the case that both plagiarism and its detection have increased independent of any change in student perceptions of the morality of copying another’s work without attribution.