Plagiarism: Perspective and Context

Apparently, as Del Jones (USA Today via weblogg-ed) writes, Authorship gets lost on Web:

The Internet is becoming a cesspool of plagiarism. ...

In some quarters, plagiarism remains a serious offense. But where it involves the Internet, an acceptance of plagiarism is taking hold, and when confronted, offenders often shrug it off as hardly newsworthy.

Pew Research two weeks ago said it found that of the 12 million adults who blog, 44% say they have taken songs, text or images and "remixed" them into their own artistic creation.

It seems the perspective of the digital generation and other netizens on plagiarism contrasts with teachers who consider plagiarism to be well-defined, frustrating, and wrong. As Will Richardson remarked,

Certainly, there is a central ethic that is involved here, that of owning your own work and attributing the work of others. Putting your name on someone else’s stuff is theft, plain and simple, and should not be tolerated.

But is it that simple? Even academics contest the nature of plagiarism. Jodi S. Cohen (Chicago Tribune) reports on a chancellor of Southern Illinois University accused of plagiarism in Words Coming Back to Haunt SIU: Edwardsville Leader Accused of Plagiarism:

There's a plagiarism hunt going on at Southern Illinois University, and the hunters think they may have bagged a big one: a campus chancellor who appears to have taken parts of his Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day remarks from other writings, a Web site, and even a White House proclamation. ...

Vandegrift said the speech was written by his staff, and that when he asked them about it Tuesday, they said they thought using unattributed remarks was acceptable because it wasn't for an academic paper.

"The feeling was that since it wasn't an academic setting, that the phrases would enhance my remarks and they did not constitute plagiarism," said Vandegrift, chancellor for two years.

Another article on the SIU controversy, Differing Standards on Plagiarism (, also underscored the disagreement between faculty and administration on what constitutes plagiarism:

Joan Friedenberg, a linguistics professor at the Carbondale campus, said the above cases are proof of the university’s hypocrisy. “When you are the chancellor or president of the university, you can’t plagiarize. Our business is words and ideas; we are judged by them,” she said. ...

Michael Ruiz, an SIU spokesman, said that the online welcome letter on the office of the president’s page was created by university staff several years ago, and that words have remained “relatively unchanged” as presidents have come and gone. “In many of the other form letters that the university uses, it is common for the names and titles to change, but for the content of the message to remain the same. Since university staff create these letters, we do not believe that this practice is improper."

Obviously, standards for plagiarism differ according to perspective and context. A few years ago, my comments on the TESL-L listserv about the fuzziness of plagiarism were posted in the ESL MiniConference Newsletter. In it, I pointed out

the situatedness of plagiarism. University presidents, politicians, and others regularly present speeches written by others without giving them credit. Academics have been known to self-plagiarize and use, without citing, words they've published earlier in a source that they do not own the copyright to. And everyone "plagiarizes" after new ideas have become common knowledge.

If university folks can disagree on the nature of plagiarism, then it seems likely that our students with their digital background will find the notion foreign — not incomprehensible, just foreign. We will need, as Will said,

to model the process and make it transparent.

First, however, we might review how perspective and context shape our understanding of plagiarism. We might even expand the conversation to include teachers who photocopy copyrighted materials without permission for the classroom. Would this be another example of perspective and context?

Some other interesting reads on plagiarism:

A history of plagiarism (not my own work
But when is copying plagiarism?
Did Shakespeare plagiarize?
Understanding Blog and Ping
How to Avoid a Blogosphere Scandal: Don’t Plagiarize!"

The last link, which is by La Shawn Barber, has excellent coverage of different examples of plagiarism and not-plagiarism debated by different groups and provides links to quite a few sources.