Several weeks ago during my various orientations as a new TA at the University of Pittsburgh, it became apparent that there is a great deal of anxiety and concern over issues of plagiarism. The issue was almost always framed in an “us versus them” kind of way, with students being framed as either lazy, stupid, or intentionally duplicitous. Now, granted, I have seen students engage in plagiarism for all of those reasons, but I grow increasingly concerned by the ways in which we are framing and discussing this issue. As noted in the Stanley Fish article that I posted about previously, plagiarism in not something that only undergraduates engage in.
Which is why I’m so interested in the The Citation Project.
The Citation Project is a multi-institution research project responding to educators’ concerns about plagiarism and the teaching of writing. Although much has been written on this topic and many have expressed concerns, little empirical data is available to describe what students are actually doing with their sources. At present, therefore, educators must make policy decisions and pedagogy based on anecdote, personal observation, media reports, and the claims of corporations that sell “solutions.”
The Citation Project begins the process of providing descriptive data. Our team systematically studies student papers that were produced in college writing courses and that draw on sources. Our purpose is to describe how student writers use their sources. With this information, educators will be able to make informed decisions about best practices for formulating plagiarism policies and for teaching rhetorically effective and ethically responsible methods of writing from sources. The Citation Project
I have poked around a little on the site and checked out some of the links and really recommend that every teacher or TA take some time to look at this work instead of relying on hearsay and anecdotal evidence of what students (and perhaps ourselves?) are doing when they (we) plagiarize.
Additionally, there is some interesting work being done by Susan D. Blum at Notre Dame that is trying to get a sense of how students understand the ownership of texts. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story on August 2, 2010 titled “Students fail to see misdeed in plagiarism” by Trip Gabriel that interviews Dr. Blum and offers something of an insight to her book, My Word!: Plagiarism and the College Culture. Her contention seems to be that new notions of ownership and textual authority are changing how students understand plagiarism and the use of information. Ironically, I can’t link to this article because it’s not available on the Post-Gazette’s site. While I’m sure I could get a full copy through something like LexisNexis, it’s hard to understand why a newspaper would make it so that you can’t read a story that they printed by simply going to their website. Perhaps this sense of entitlement is related to Dr. Blum’s point about shifting notions of ownership? Perhaps they didn’t want anyone to “steal” the words?
The anxiety around this issue does seem to be increasing in an increasingly digital and information-dense world. I think that’s probably a good thing. What I am wary of in academia is that much of our discussion remains rooted in students doing a “bad” thing instead of taking the time to understand how both our students and ourselves work with text while navigating a geography of information that has shifted, in some ways dramatically, in just the last decade. Ultimately, we need to address our anxiety as part of a larger cultural shift in understanding textual authority and critical thinking. Dr. Blum says that “[o]ur notion of authorship and originality was born. It flourished, and it may be waning.” I don’t necessarily think that we ought to through up our hands and give up, but I do think we need to approach the issue with a deeper sense of context, both historically and culturally and start examining the issues rather than simply and dramatically reacting to them through whatever various ways we use to observe and discipline students.