Recap of Friday’s plagiarism talks

I went to a spiel/mini-symposium/keynote speech deal over at the University of Michigan on Friday that was kind of a recap of a conference they had there about plagiarism last year, and also a celebration for the book Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. An interesting afternoon, and as an aside, it is one of those things that makes me think about living in the long shadow cast by the University of Michigan. Most people (including some of the out-of-towners who were at this thing) are surprised to learn that EMU is only about 10 miles away from U of M, though, as my visit to the pristine and beautiful Angell Hall reminded me for the millionth time, U of M and EMU are worlds apart. But the upside of living right next to U of M is events like this come up every once in a while, not to mention all the other cool stuff in Ann Arbor and on campus, the libraries, etc., etc.

Anyway, the speeches were from Linda “on the home team” Adler-Kassner, Rebecca Moore Howard, and Chris Anson. The three of them have a chapter is in this book, too. Linda AK’s talk was about Turnitin.com and she pointed out something that I guess is kind of obvious once you start looking but something I had not thought of before: just about everything you see about plagiarism in the popular press seems to come from these people at Turnitin.com. That’s kind of like everything about the overblown dangers of drinking and driving coming out from Budweiser or something. It’s a nasty business to be sure, but you’ve got to hand it to John Barrie and these other people: they’ve been incredibly able to convince folks that a) plagiarism is this horrific plague on the educational process, and b)Turnitin.com is the solution. And they’ve done all this with essentially no expertise on the matter.

Rebecca Howard’s talk was mostly about a research project she’s working on called “The Engaged Reading Project,” which is a fairly complicated and detailed analysis of how students are using/misusing sources. One of the things she pointed out as part of her talk was some of the ways in which Turnitin.com doesn’t work when it comes to “catching” things less than 40-some-odd characters, and what Turnitin really is is a “copy detection” system, which is not the same thing as plagiarism. I appreciated this because while all of the ethical and other problems with plagiarism detection schemes are of course important, it frankly annoys me to no end that these people are making millions of dollars off of a product that fosters bad teaching and, just to top it off, it doesn’t really work that well.

Anyway, most of what Howard did was talk about how her research is trying to approach the problem from the opposite direction, to find out what it is that students are doing with their sources, etc. I think a lot of what she was talking about is that students who are misusing sources and doing a sort of “patch writing” are just not that engaged in the reading and the assignment. So in that sense, plagiarism (but not really plagiarism, more like not using sources well and/or not according to the rules) really is a learning problem and not a policing problem.

Chris Anson talked about a couple of examples of plagiarism– or not really plagiarism so much as “borrowed writing”– that occur all the time in the “real world.” One was in the Army, where it is (apparently) common for officers to copy each others’ memos without attribution in order to relay a message to the troops. Mike at vitia had a series of posts which start here about this in November that sort of address this kind of thing. But for me the more interesting example was when he was talking about how there’s all this language on the web that people “borrow” from each other all the time. The example Anson had that stuck with me was the kind of language that a number of different web sites use about how to drive in the snow and ice. For example, if you do a Google search for these two sentences–

Use your brakes cautiously. Abrupt braking can cause brake lock-up and cause you to lose steering control.

— (as I did if you follow the link), you’ll see lots of web sites use either the exact language or something pretty close to it in describing icy driving. Now, is this plagiarism? Hell if I know. I mean, it seems to me there are only so many ways you can uniquely word something like “use your brakes cautiously,” which maybe gets into some territory about what counts as “common knowledge” of something that doesn’t need to be cited, or some kind of language that cannot be copyrighted or owned per se, like most recipes.

At the end of the day, and I think this was Linda’s main point, “plagiarism” is a problem that really is a stand-in for lots of other problems and fears we have about the (mis)education of youth. Plagiarism is a hot topic again as a result of technology, but is it actually a “problem” because students can so easily just “copy and paste” stuff from the web, or is it really a problem because this technology throws such an enormous wrench into concepts of ownership, knowledge, access, collaboration, connections, etc. It’d be interesting to find out if there were previous plagiarism scares with the development of previous technologies, like the dangers of the typewriter making writing so much easier to copy.

Anyway, great and thoughtful stuff. I bought the book and I hope to use it a bit next year when I teach about plagiarism again in 516.

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