Many instructors lack information on what and how they can use various media in their classrooms without violating fair use. To learn how to use copyrighted material appropriately, the Center for Social Media has a downloadable report, The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education.

This document is a code of best practices that helps educators using media literacy concepts and techniques to interpret the copyright doctrine of fair use. Fair use is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances—especially when the cultural or social benefits of the use are predominant. It is a general right that applies even in situations where the law provides no specific authorization for the use in question—as it does for certain narrowly defined classroom activities.

This guide identifies five principles that represent the media literacy education community’s current consensus about acceptable practices for the fair use of copyrighted materials, wherever and however it occurs: in K–12 education, in higher education, in nonprofit organizations that offer programs for children and youth, and in adult education.

Related links from the NCTE Inbox:
Fair use and copyright for educators (Traci Gardner)

Elementary Teachers
Research building blocks for elementary classrooms

Middle Level Teachers Campaigning for Fair Use: Public Service Announcements on Copyright Awareness
Inquiry on the Internet: Evaluating Web Pages for a Class Collection
Exploring Plagiarism, Copyright, and Paraphrasing
Copyright Law: From Digital Reprints to Downloads

Secondary and College Teachers
Creative Outlining--From Freewriting to Formalizing
The Ten-Minute Play: Encouraging Original Response to Challenging Texts
Modeling Academic Writing Through Scholarly Article Presentations

The graduate course Theory and Practice of Teaching Writing (see previous post) just posted this comment:

Just to let you all know that the readings are here only until the books come in. The readings  for your second class will be taken off the page this week.

Apparently, there's no intent to violate copyright law. I imagine that scanning one copy and posting on the Internet can save paper costs, but posting publicly is not fair use. A better solution would be to hand out the URLs for the articles in class, so at least the public could not easily access them, and if possible, the best solution would be posting them in a secured, password-protected environment, which would be within guidelines of fair use for educational institutions.

Is this graduate course Theory and Practice of Teaching Writing at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez violating copyright laws?

It's not my practice to tell others about others about copyright problems. If I did, I would have no time for anything else in my life. But I was curious. This was a graduate course on writing that was posting chapters from books on the Internet. Obviously, they would know about copyright law. Did they have permission to do so? I posted a comment, or tried to, yesterday, just noting that if they didn't have permission, posting these chapters out of books would be violating copyright law. But I see today that my comment is not there. It does make me wonder. Wouldn't a course on teaching writing be interested in such an issue?

A related issue, at least for me, is that of plagiarism. As a teacher of writing at a university, I feel it's important to teach students what it is and how to avoid it. At the same time, I wonder about instructors who go into a tizzy over plagiarism. I wonder if they photocopy materials out of books that aren't in accord with fair use guidelines. Quite a few do. What's interesting is that while inappropriate and not conducive to learning, plagiarism is not illegal while violating copyright is. Yet, I've never seen a teacher get upset over photocopying past fair use.

Apparently, publishing companies don't always get permission for the materials they use, either. Mike Dunford caught Reed Elsevier copying his content without permission (from Stephen Downes).

So, although I'm concerned about students plagiarizing and cheating (It's not conducive to learning), I'm not sure that the Net Generation, as Valerie Milliron and Kent Sandoe in their article "The Net Generation Cheating Challenge" at Innovate (requires free registration), really have a "disregard of societal norms." Just read the news in New Jersey: Almost every month, I'm reading about some politician being indicted—not to mention politicians at the federal level. And, of course, we could talk about Enron and many others. Although I'm aware of the increase in cheating researched by McCabe, I wonder if the Net Generation is just more open about what they do than politicians, corporations, and the average older person are.

This blog on plagiarism, Copy, Shake, Paste may be of interest. It's maintained by Debora Weber-Wulff, professor for Media and Computing at FHTW Berlin, who has been conducting research on plagiarism detection services. She and her colleagues released a report (in German) on the testing of these services. She states:

We hope that our work can help these companies to produce better results. But our summary for 2007 is the same as for 2004: It is better to use a search machine yourself, the software just costs money and is not necessarily very good at finding all plagiarisms.

Not knowing German, I can't read the report to see what percentages of "finding" were found, and it seems odd to me to expect that any software would discover "all plagiarisms." Of course, users should consider whether the software is worth the money, depending, I imagine, upon some expected percentage of successful discovery--especially if you want to use it as a learning tool in the classroom. At least this approach, unlike quite a bit of the ideological controversy surrounding these tools, is one that is simply being practical.

On a side note, at the Educause 2007 Southeast Regional Conference in Atlanta, Liz Johnson, Project Manager, Advanced Learning Technologies (Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia), had a poster session with a chart (pdf) that compared seven software detection programs:Turnitin, MyDropBox, PAIRwise, EVE2, WCopyfind, CopyCatch, and Glatt. The chart provides information ranging from price to support to much more, including the issue of intellectual property.

Related posts:

Here are the links to my series of posts on Turnitin, plus a list of plagiarism resources and two others related to reasoning:

Related readings on Turnitin, plagiarism, and intellectual property:


  • "Before Models Can Turn Around, Knockoffs Fly"
  • A debate is raging in the American fashion industry over such designs. Copying, which has always existed in fashion, has become so pervasive in the Internet era it is now the No. 1 priority of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which is lobbying Congress to extend copyright protection to clothing.

Why Use Turnitin?
My experience in my first-year composition (FYC) classes for ESL students indicates that many, perhaps most, students do not understand what constitutes plagiarism. Even after defining it and doing exercises, how to attribute sources properly remains difficult for my students, in part because of language and in part due to conceptual understanding. I still remember three months into one semester a few years back when, after I commented on an example of plagiarism, one student exclaimed, "That's what you mean by plagiarism?!" So, although I haven't used Turnitin much, what follows are my thoughts on how I plan to use Turnitin.

Before Using Turnitin
The main purpose of Turnitin should be a learning tool. Thus, establish an appropriate learning environment for using Turnitin. Rather than a "got'cha" environment, students should understand that Turnitin is a tool to help them see where they need to make changes in their paper, whether in revising or in citing. Generally speaking, don't penalize rough drafts for matches to other documents.

Teach how to use sources appropriately.

  1. Give examples of appropriate and inappropriate use with explanations of the differences.
  2. Have students practice recognizing whether a source is plagiarizing or not.
  3. Have students practice paraphrasing and quoting select passages.

This sequence of tasks helps to move students from a mental understanding of appropriate attribution to the ability to cite sources correctly. It's only a beginning, however. Students may need the entire semester of working and re-working with their papers to make their understanding and skill automatic in practice.

Using Turnitin
Explain to students why you are using Turnitin and how it works. Basically, learning to cite sources appropriately can take time, and Turnitin can help that process. Be sure to include a statement about its use and purpose in the class syllabus. (For a model of such a statement, see Greg Reihman's example.)

Students, rather than the instructor, should submit their papers to Turnitin and get an originality report. If there are problems, whether true or false positive, they can tackle it alone or you can discuss it together. Being able to see possible cases of plagiarism and to discuss actual examples are important for students to build up a contextualized understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and what does not. In those cases technically constituting plagiarism, students' access to turnitin's originality report function lets them see whether their writing needs work in summarizing, paraphrasing, or citing, and where it needs it. Thus, the originality reports can provide a point of departure for discussing what is plagiarism and what isn't, what is effective paraphrase and what isn't, and what must be cited and what doesn't. It also helps teachers to identify students who are having difficulty in learning these distinctions and to provide the extra help they need.

In addition, students can see how they have revised from one draft to the next. As Tracy Morse wrote,

Since retains every submitted paper in its database, it is possible to submit different drafts of the same paper and learn from the plagiarism report generated from how much one draft has changed from the next. The benefit for students is that they can have a quantitative report in the percentage referring to how much of their draft is the same, or "plagiarized" in terms, to their previous draft submitted to the database.

This ability to see changes is helpful because students often feel that they have revised a paper when all they have done is edited it, making a few grammatical or vocabulary changes. Turnitin also has an anonymous peer review system. I haven't used Turnitin in this way (or for revising), but Dennis Jerz comments,

I also find the peer-review feature very useful. Students can trade anonymous peer reviews within the system. I find I have to ask very specific questions, since the system doesn't permit students to cross out a sentence or draw a wavy line under a confusing passage.. the system doesn't really encourage global revisions, but this limitation does force me to decide, for each peer review, what are the specific things I most want students to be looking for when they review each other's work. And that forces me to focus on whether I'm actually teaching those skills to the students.

Much has been claimed about the potential for Turnitin to alienate students. But actually, it has the potential to motivate students. According to self-determination theory, motivation is driven by three needs: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Giving autonomy to students is crucial for learning. Ryan and Deci (pdf) write,

teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge…. Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative processing. (p. 71)

Naturally, Turnitin could be used in controlling ways. However, if students (instead of the teacher) are submitting their work to Turnitin and taking responsibility for learning to use sources in an encouraging atmostphere, then their autonomy is being supported. In addition, being able to see these distinctions in originality reports should help them learn to use sources more competently, thus again motivating students as they themselves see their improvement in using sources.

(For more detailed caveats, see Nick Carbone's "Strategies for Teaching with Online Tools" and Sharon Gerald's "Confessions of a User".)

  • Turnitin is a tool, not a teacher. It supports instruction; it does not subsitute for it.
  • Turnitin can give false positives in their originality reports.
  • Turnitin can also give false negatives: It does not find every instance of plagiarism.
  • The teacher must interpret the originality reports. The percentage number provided with an originality report does not necessarily correspond to an amount of plagiarism.
  • Students are learning. Unless clearly indicated otherwise, consider most instances of "plagiarism" detected through Turnitin to be non-intentional and an opportunity to help students better understand how to use sources.

Turnitin, used properly, can be one tool among others, not simply for catching plagiarism, but more importantly for teaching students how to use sources appropriately.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Rhetoric
Turnitin and Intellectual Property
Turnitin Bibliography

As noted in Turnitin and Rhetoric, although the arguments against Turnitin are mostly logical fallacies, the issue of intellectual property does need to be addressed. Charlie Lowe, Ellen Schendel, and Julie White wrote,

Students have intellectual property rights to their writing that make problematic Turnitin’s compilation of student texts.

  • Claims of fair use by Turnitin put aside, teachers may want to consider their own opinions about requiring students to give away their work to be used by a third party, for-profit vendor.

What sorts of intellectual property rights do students have? It isn't trademark, trade secret, or patent rights, so it must be copyright (see Info/Law for this breakdown). Most student papers do not have an "original" idea or way of framing a particular idea. Rather, they are collections of common knowledge that display the students' developing proficiency in presenting that common knowledge. Copyright in these cases is at best a technicality. However, infrequently as it may be, some students do write a paper that is worthy of being published, in fact, that gets published. And as students progress in their knowledge and writing ability, this possibility increases.

Assuming students have copyright protection, still, what have they given away? Their written work remains their property. If they wish to publish it, make money off it, or anything else, they still have that right. Thus, they are not giving it away, at least no more than academics who sign off their copyright to journals without receiving any compensation. Of course, some might argue that academics have "choice." Not really, that is, if they want to receive tenure and promotion. And in contrast to academics giving away their copyright, students still have theirs. Unlike the journal-academic relationship, Turnitin's use of student work and the students' use of their work do not overlap or conflict.

Interestingly, the authors

recommend that the university consider having Turnitin globally configured at GVSU so that students’ papers are not stored in the database.

Apparently, they see a difference between a "for-profit vendor" not respecting students' intellectual property rights and the university doing the same. Such a distinction is difficult for me to see. Perhaps, as a colleague of mine commented, it's a qualified recommendation. That is, if GVSU insists on using Turnitin, then it would be better to have student papers on GVSU servers. Still, if I felt that if I believed, as they wrote, "Turnitin discourages good pedagogical practices" and "can be ineffective for detecting plagiarism," I would find it difficult to make such a recommendation because storing student papers at GVSU, as opposed to storing them on Turnitin servers, would not change these assumed negative by-products of Turnitin.

Even so, the commercial distinction is not an important one for me. Although universities are technically non-profit organizatons, it is an illusion that they are non-commercial. In New Jersey, the state provides about 20% of public university budgets ("New Jersey Colleges Brace for More Financial Blows", subscription needed). A major portion of the other 80% comes from students' tuition (e.g., 48.5% at Montclair State U.). In addition, universities invest their endowment funds in the stock market. Harvard's $28 billion endowment leads the pack. And there are the money making athletic programs and university-corporation "mergers" in which students provide cheap labor. Others have written in detail about the commercialization of academia.

On the notion of "fair use," I'm not sure that Turnitin's use is fair use. Arguments exist pro and con (see here and here for discussions on law blogs). One prominent lawyer and judge who seems to support Turnitin's use is Richard Posner. In his The Little Book of Plagiarism (see a brief review here, he states,

Some especially tony colleges, such as Harvard, do not subscribe to Turnitin or other plagiarism-detection software services but prefer to preach to their students about the evils of plagiarism. These schools are naïve. (p. 82).

According to Lawrence Lessig,

[Posner] is the most prolific person I know. He is the most influential lawyer of his time. His work in law and economics revolutionized the legal academy. His opinions as a judge are easily among the most influential in the federal judiciary.

Although Posner doesn't mention "fair use", he doesn't seem to see any legal objections to Turnitin (although for a position against "fair use," see comment #12 of "Plagiarism and Copyright" at Info/Law).

If that's a correct read, then the discussion turns on the ethical, that students are not freely giving their consent for Turnitin to archive their papers. If that is unethical, then so are most university policies and procedures, as a lack of consent is a commonplace in the university: Students don't give their consent to instructors to keep copies of their papers and final exams, to GVSU if it decides to store their papers on their own servers, to the course syllabus or grading system, or to much of anything else that the university requires from them. Similarly, as someone commented,

How different is Turnitin's process from grad students being required to submit their theses to the school's library and Diss Abstracts Online? ...

Is it that Turnitin doesn't compensate students? Libraries don't compensate grad students for the thesis they submit. In fact, you usually have to pay to have your own thesis bound for the library.

Counterexamples don't necessarily show that requiring students to give their papers to Turnitin is ethical, but they do show (1) the routineness of not requiring consent for many university policies and procedures and (2) a selective application of requiring consent, indicating that we should consider more carefully the criteria that make it unethical for requiring consent in one context and unseen in another.

What seems to be going on is an emotional response to a perceived violation of student ownership of their writing. Lowe and Schendel (at AFT) wrote:

Allowing a third-party vendor to police the presentation of honest students’ ideas, preserve a copy for policing others, and make money off of their writing diminishes student authority over their work and interferes with student intellectual and civic development.

This sentence seems to be the driving force of their position. It is more than possible that an instructor with a "got'cha" attitude will use Turnitin as a "policing" tool. However, as noted in Turnitin and Rhetoric and as will be seen in my next post, policing is not a necessary consequency of Turnitin. And from my own experience teaching international and ESL students for the last 15 years, many of whom have come from educational environments that many would consider more repressive than ours, I can say with some oversimplification that I have not seen any arrestment in their intellectual or civic development. Apparently, there is an ideologial adherence to promoting "student authority" to such an extent that emotion overrules reason, resulting in unsubstantiated and exaggerated claims.

One concern that receives insufficient attention is the right and responsibility of educational institutions to ensure academic integrity and learning. If cheating and plagiarism were insignificant, then little justification would exist to use Turnitin. However, as noted in Turnitin and Rhetoric, solid research shows that cheating and plagiarism are not only prevalent but also continuing to increase, which more and more circumvents the learning expected to occur in schools and the integrity of academic degrees--not to mention putting those students who do not plagiarize at a disadvantage as regards their GPA, an important factor in obtaining scholarships, internships, admission to graduate school, and so on. To not acknowledge these trends is naïve. And to assume that "effective teaching practices," although a crucial tool in attribution instruction, is sufficient to slow down or reverse this societal phenomenon is also naïve.

For me, it's not important whether Turnitin is a commercial entity. What is important is, Do institutions have a compelling legitimate interest in protecting academic integrity and learning that permits archiving student papers? What do you think?

Of course, if we use Turnitin, we should do so in appropriate ways, which I'll discuss in my next post.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Rhetoric
Using Turnitin
Turnitin Bibliography

A federal judge has decided that Turnitin's use of student papers does not violate copyright laws. For more on this decision, see:

What do you think about Turnitin, the plagiarism detection service? Apparently quite a few people don't like it. A little less than a year ago, Charlie Lowe, Ellen Schendel, and Julie White on Cyberdash wrote,

Scholars and teachers in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, as well as other academics, have discouraged the use of plagiarism detection services.

Now, one would think that those trained as rhetoricians and compositionists would have good arguments. However, except possibily for one argument, that of intellectual property, their position is based mostly on unwarranted assumptions and faulty logic. I'll save the intellectual property argument for a later post and look at their other claims here.

According to the Cyberdash folks, two reasons not to use Turnitin are:

  1. "Turnitin Can Be Ineffective for Detecting Plagiarism"
  2. "Turnitin Discourages Good Pedagogical Practices Concerning Writing"

That word "can" is a nice sleight-of-hand term. Scholars use it because it lowers the strength of the claim sufficiently so that it can't be refuted. The major problem with the first claim, however, is its warrant: "anything that can be ineffective for detecting plagiarism shouldn't be used." By this logic, instructors shouldn't use Google or Yahoo (two search engines mentioned by these same scholars) for detecting plagiarsim because they, too, "can" be ineffective. Even the teaching practices they espouse "can" be ineffective. No single approach to detecting plagiarism is 100% effective, and so it's an unenlightening truism to say that a particular method can be ineffective.

Under the first claim, the authors write:

In “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices,” the Council of Writing Program Administrators urges teachers to “use plagiarism detection services cautiously,” for they should “never be used to justify the avoidance of responsible teaching methods.” We recommend that teachers work toward implementing the WPA’s best practices as a long-term solution to eliminating plagiarism and building a culture of responsible participation in the creation and circulation of academic knowledge.

Certainly, Turnitin should be used with care, and certainly "responsible teaching methods" should be employed. Who would disagree with these assertions? But note that the authors have used values we agree with to reduce a complex situation to an "either-or" fallacy of opposing good teaching practices with the use of Turnitin. More appropriately, Turnitin should be considered as one tool that, when used in conjunction with other approaches, such as Google or Yahoo, along with "good" teaching practices, statistically increases one's overall effectiveness in detecting plagiarism and in teaching how to avoid plagiarism.

On the second claim, the authors specifically claim that turnitin

emphasizes the policing of student behavior and texts over good-faith assumptions about students’ integrity, and can shift attention away from teaching students how to avoid plagiarism in the first place.

So many fallacies are entangled in this sentence, it's difficult to know where to begin. On the first point, on "policing," many composition professors require photocopies of sources to be turned in with the papers to catch plagiarism. That common practice, which is used to help students with the process of writing, often has the additional purpose of deterring/catching plagiarism (i.e., "policing"), according to what I've gathered in casual conversations with other instructors. More importantly, the claim of "policing" depends entirely on the context and classroom environment. It is not the tool that emphasizes policing, it is the instructor and the environment established by the instructor. Of course, I can imagine that some instructors would establish a policing environment with Turnitin. If Turnitin is used appropriately, however, this claimed "emphasis" simply does not exist. Rather, using Turnitin appropriately is a valuable tool for teaching students "how to avoid plagiarism."

With respect to students' integrity, until I started reading about the "problems" with Turnitin, I assumed, based on my experience, that perhaps 5% of my students intentionally cheated or plagiarized. Since then, however, I've learned plagiarism and cheating is prevalent.

Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers, has conducted extensive research on cheating. In the last 4 years, his research has surveyed more than 50,000 undergraduate students and 18,000 high school students and has found that 70% of each group of students has admitted to cheating, that levels of cheating have been increasing over the last 4 decades, and that most students do not consider Internet plagiarism to be a "serious issue." In one study by McCabe,

Thirty-eight percent of the undergraduate students completing the survey indicated they had engaged in one or more instances of cut & paste plagiarism using the Internet in the past year - paraphrasing or copying a few sentences of material from the Internet without citing the source.

In an article by Emily Sachar, McCabe has also found that of more than 5,000 graduate students, 56% of MBA students and 47% of non-business students had cheated, noting,

You're asking kids to be honest about their dishonesty. So that suggests that kids are, if anything, underreporting their cheating activity.

To assume integrity when the evidence clearly indicates otherwise is unwarranted and naive. Even so, using Turitin has nothing to do with assumptions about students' integrity, unless, as a few commenters have said, someone also would claim that using metal detectors at airports assumes that all travelers are terrorists.

The assumptions being made reflect the ideological positions of those making them rather than reality. When I stayed in the hospital with my wife during the birth of our daughter eight months ago, every time I took my daughter from the nursery, the nurses always checked my ID bracelet and hers to see if they matched--even though I had accompanied the nurse with my daughter to the nursery! There was no assumption of my being a guilty baby snatcher. Instead, the environment was one of safety and security for the babies. That's the sort of environment our classes should have--not one of students being guilty of plagiarism but rather one of protecting the integrity of the grades of those who do their own work. In fact, some students see Turnitin in this manner (e.g., Aditi Banga and The Crimson staff).

On "shift[ing] attention away from teaching students how to avoid plagiarism in the first place," no evidence of this shift is provided here or anywhere else I have read. Now I can imagine teachers who are not tackling plagiarism to begin with might overrely, even soly rely, on Turnitin. However, it's difficult to imagine that instructors who have "effective" practices on avoiding plagiarism will stop teaching plagiarism avoidance simply because they started using turnitin. The authors' claim that "Turnitin Discourages Effective Pedagogical Practices" is, at best, no more than speculation.

Although these compositionists mean well, their claims are based not upon research but on faulty rhetoric that is driven by emotion not reason. Rather than assuming uncritically that using Turnitin projects an image that students are guilty or encourages bad teaching practices, it would be better to provide guidance on how to use Turnitin in a positive way. I'll post a little on that after I look at the issue of intellectual property in my next post.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Intellectual Property
Using Turnitin
Turnitin Bibliography

Richard Posner's "The little book on plagiarism" is an excellent, concise look at plagiarism. Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, offers an interesting legal-economic perspective on plagiarism that's well worth reading.

For something to be considered plagiarism, Posner states,

Plagiarism is a species of intellectual fraud. It consists of unauthorized copying that the copier claims (whether explicitly or implicitly, and whether deliberately or carelessly) is original with him and the claim causes the copier's audience to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth. (p. 106)

That's why, Posner argues, textbooks and judges' written opinions do not fall into the category of plagiarism. That is, (1) no one cares that textbooks don't cite their sources or that judges put their name on legal "patchwork" opinions, and (2) readers' actions would not change even if they knew the writing was not original. Ditto for ghostwritten celebrity books.

And that's why student work can fall into plagiarism: Students who plagiarize copy without authorization and lead the teacher to give a grade higher than would be the case if s/he knew.

One interesting point Posner makes is the double standard applied in the university. That is,

Plagiarism by professors tends to be punished less severely [than that of students] ... (p. 89)

Posner gives several examples, but one that stands out is that of Doris Kearns Goodwin:

Laurence Tribe leapt quickly to her defense, contending that her plagiarism had been inadvertent (though there was no way he could have determined that to be the case)--like his! And a string of prominent historians led by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Signed an open letter to the New York Times stating flatly that Goodwin "did not, she does not, cheat or plagiarize. In fact, her character and work symbolize the highest standards of moral integrity. (pp. 92-93)

As Posner notes, that academics would defend an "acknowledged plagiarist" as a "moral exemplar" is "remarkable."

Another point that Posner brings up is the differences between copyright violations and plagiarism. The former is illegal, the latter is not. Often they overlap, but not always:

Copyrights have limited terms; after a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and can be copied by anyone, without legal liability. And not all expressive works are copyrighted in the first place; for example, the federal government is forbidden by statute to claim copyright in the documents it produces. (p. 12)

Although copying public domain works does not incur a legal liability, it can still be considered plagiarism, especially when done by students, which reminds me of another double standard: many teachers think nothing of photocopying copyrighted materials without permission (in ways that are not fair use and thus breaking the law) but become righteously indignant when detecting a case of plagiarism, which is not illegal. Rather remarkable, isn't it?


The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University School of Law has a comic book called "Bound by Law" (via TL Infobits) that can be read online or downloaded. From the website:

Bound by Law translates law into plain English and abstract ideas into ‘visual metaphors.’ So the comic's heroine, Akiko, brandishes a laser gun as she fends off a cyclopean 'Rights Monster' - all the while learning copyright law basics, including the line between fair use and copyright infringement.” -Brandt Goldstein, The Wall Street Journal online

Collectanea, a blog on copyright issues, has just launched and is sponsored by the Center for Intellectual Property (CIP) at the University of Maryland University College. According to the CIP:

The Center for Intellectual Property and Copyright in the Digital Environment provides resources and information for the higher education community in the areas of intellectual property, copyright, and the emerging digital environment.

This should be of interest to those who use blogs and wikis in their classes as the notions of copyrght and intellectual property grow murkier in digital environments.


These posters are the work of J. Nathan Mathias with the help of Hannah Scott. Along with the other ones they created for Elizabethtown College, they are the most original and beautiful academic integrity posters I have ever seen.

Clay Spinuzzi at Blogging Pedagoy writes about new innovations in getting one's homework done:

Slashdot has some links to a discussion about how students are cheating in college, including leveraging Wikipedia, Turnitin, and so forth. One of the more intriguing links was to Student of Fortune, which appears to be a brokering service for, er, tutoring.

My traditional, glib response to worries about cheating has been that as long as the instructor comes up with unique, situated assignments and reviews drafts during the writing process, it's not an issue. But that solution works for instructors teaching small numbers of classes in small sections. And the measures described here, especially Student of Fortune, can counteract the countermeasures.

As Spinuzzi notes, students can "outsource" their homework, thus circumscribing attempts to design assignments to avoid cheating and plagiarism. Actually, although the technological methods are new, the concept is not. I remember in 1969 when a friend of mine was paid to impersonate another student for the entire semester for a Spanish class. A problem occurred when he fairly quickly realized that as a Spanish major he might be recognized by another professor who would wonder why he was sitting in an introductory Spanish course. Student of Fortune, however, makes it considerably easier to find someone to do their work and easier to line up people to do that work. And there's considerably less risk of being detected. The Internet has enabled cheating to reach new entrepreneurial levels.

Here is a list of resources on plagiarism, most of which themselves are a compendium of resources:

"Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices"
The Council of Writing Program Administrators has some excellent guidelines on dealing with plagiarism. As they write,

Plagiarism has always concerned teachers and administrators, who want students’ work to represent their own efforts and to reflect the outcomes of their learning. However, with the advent of the Internet and easy access to almost limitless written material on every conceivable topic, suspicion of student plagiarism has begun to affect teachers at all levels, at times diverting them from the work of developing students’ writing, reading, and critical thinking abilities.

This statement responds to the growing educational concerns about plagiarism in four ways: by defining plagiarism; by suggesting some of the causes of plagiarism; by proposing a set of responsibilities (for students, teachers, and administrators) to address the problem of plagiarism; and by recommending a set of practices for teaching and learning that can significantly reduce the likelihood of plagiarism. The statement is intended to provide helpful suggestions and clarifications so that instructors, administrators, and students can work together more effectively in support of excellence in teaching and learning.

Sharon Stoerger from the University of Illinois has compiled a one-stop, everything-you-ever-needed-to-know-about-plagiarism list of resources broken down according to categories of Articles, Copyright & Intellectual Freedom, For Instructors, For Students, Plagiarism Case Studies, Plagiarism Detection Tools, Term Paper Sites--Examples, Additional Plagiarism Resources, and Additional Ethics Resources.

The University of Maryland College's Center for Intellectual Property provides quite an extensive list of resources in these categories: Plagiarism Detection Services, Evaluation of Detection Services and Methods, Incidence and Prevalence (statistics on student plagiarism), Academic Integrity Issues, Developing Assignments and Preventing Plagiarism, Theory and Discussion, and Other Bibliographies and Guides.

The Open Directory Project has 100 articles in alphabetical order or by category of Citation Guides, Copyrights, Detection, and Prevention. Because this site is an open-to-volunteer-editors site, the number of articles may easily grow in the future.

"Plagiarism resources"
Z. Smith Reynold's Library (Wake Forest University) has resources in the categories of Articles and Books About Plagiarism, Avoiding Plagiarisim: Tips for Writers & Tips for Faculty, and Detecting Plagiarism: Tips for Faculty.

"Plagiarism resources"
Sherman Dorn's tutorials are not comprehensive as other sites, but as he says:

These pages have my personal sense of humor and perspective as a teacher. Don't say I didn't warn you! Remember, these are the lemonade tutorials.

"Plagiarism resource site"
In addition to their resources, CBB has a blog that posts blurbs with links to news of plagiarism.

Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin (CBB) have jointly developed this site as part of an instruction program conceived to discourage student plagiarism. Intended as a clearinghouse for information on plagiarism, the site is especially concerned with news, developments, and resources that consider the issue in the context of undergraduate teaching and learning.

The site consists of two main sections: standalone resources and a collection of news items.

"Plagiarism resource site"
Lou Bloomfield, Professor of Physics, University of Virginia, is one of the few resources I found that distributes free software (which seems to be his own creation).

The goal of this web site is to help reduce the impact of plagiarism on education and educational institutions. At present, it distributes free software to detect plagiarism and provides links to other resources.

"Resources on plagiarism & cheating"
Sara Nixon, Reference Librarian at Towson University, has provided links to resources in the categories of Web Directories, For Students, For Faculty, For Online Teaching, and Detection Programs.

Have you ever noticed that different dictionaries often define words almost exactly the same, word for word? Here are a few selected definitions of the word plagiarize from various dictionaries:

  1. to appropriate ideas, passages, etc., from (a work) by plagiarism
  2. to appropriate (ideas, passages, etc.) from (another work or author)
  3. to appropriate and pass off as one's own (the writings, ideas, etc., of another)
  4. to use and pass off (the ideas or writings of another) as one's own
  5. to steal and use (the ideas or writings of another) as one's own
  6. to steal and pass off as one's own (the ideas or words of another)

The sources are respectively:

  1. Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (based on the Random House Dictionary, 1st ed., 1994)
  2. The Collins Paperback English Dictionary (Collins, 1986)
  3. Standard Dictionary, International Edition (Vol. 2, Funk & Wagnalls, 1965)
  4. (Lexico Publishing Group)
  5. The American Heritage Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, 1982)
  6. Websters Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1993)

Is this plagiarism?

Update: At some time since this post, started citing its sources, giving as a source for the entry "plagiarism", Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

Some time ago, I came across Brian Martin's article "Plagiarism: a misplaced emphasis" which was published in the Journal of Information Ethics (1994). He lists several commonly accepted practices of what he calls institutionalized plagiarism that fit the common definition of plagiarism (i.e., taking someone else's words or ideas without crediting appropriately):

  • ghostwriting (e.g., for famous people)
  • honorary authorship (e.g, a lab supervisor's name is listed as author but contributed little or nothing to the paper)
  • political speechwriting
  • beauracratic documents (i.e, "junior workers" write documents signed by their senior officials)

Institutionalized plagiarism, as he notes, seldom merits attention, although as in the case of Southern Illinois University (see Plagiarism: Perspective and Context), other circumstances can turn the spotlight on it. In contrast, what he calls competitive plagiarism (e.g., the taking of words or ideas from those whose careers are dependent upon those ideas, sometimes by scholars or journalists and more often by students, whether intentional or not) is considered "a serious offence against scholarship [that] should be condemned and penalized." Martin says that we need to reverse how we view competitive and insitutionalized plagiarism; that is, the institutionalized form should be considered more egregious:

By this analysis, competitive plagiarism is given too much attention and condemned in far too extreme terms. Given the pervasiveness of plagiarism, it should be treated as a common, often inadvertent problem, rather like speeding on the road or cheating on income taxes. Most cases should be dealt with as matters of etiquette rather than "theft." Otherwise, the danger is that plagiarism allegations can be a way of mounting unscrupulous attacks on individuals who are targeted for other reasons.

Contrary to the case of competitive plagiarism, the issue of institutionalized plagiarism deserves more attention. It serves as a focus on power inequality and intellectual exploitation. The term "plagiarism" needs to be brought into common use to describe ghostwriting and attribution of authorship to top bureaucrats and officials, as a way of challenging those practices. In situations of intellectual exploitation, the demand for proper acknowledgment of work can be a subversive one. Since hierarchical and bureaucratized work structures foster institutionalized plagiarism, demanding fair credit for work done exposes and challenges these structures.

In summary, concern about plagiarism has been diverted from the most serious and pervasive problems and channelled into excessive concern about less serious problems. This process is clearly one that serves the interests of the biggest intellectual exploiters.

It's an interesting perspective. Do the words of institutional figures belong to them or to the institution? In my earlier post, an SIU spokesperson said that they were the property of the insitution's. I suppose it's similar to a company owning the patents created by their research employees. I wonder, Would it be considered plagiarism, then, if an institutional figure went to work at another place and used a speech written by the first place? Regardless, plagiarism remains a matter of perspective and context rather than a clearly defined practice.

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.

Plagiarism was a hot topic at TESOL 2006 with presenters giving strategies for preventing it and quite a few resources online. From Joel Bloch at The Ohio State University is a site with a tutorial and lessons for students and a link to the journal Plagiary. Thomas Leverett of Southern Illinois University and Laurie Moody of Passaic County Community College posted their presentation "Internet Plagiarism: an esl/efl learning experience," which has suggestions for dealing with Internet plagiarism. Gail Fensom, University of New Hampshire-Manchester, provided a bibliography and online resources, a few of which are:

"Avoiding Plagiarism: Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL)"
Turn-it-in's "" site
Robert Harris's "Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers."

And for those students who need help in learning to paraphrase, there is Arizona State University's site "Paraphrasing".

One quotation from Robert Harris (I believe it was in Fensom's handout) is on target:

In my experience, other than the whole paper or paragraph-after-paragraph type of plagiarism, much plagiarism occurs through the student's lack of understanding about how to quote, paraphrase, and cite sources. Many students simply do not know what they are doing. Providing them with clear instruction about plagiarism and how to avoidit will help reduce the amount you see.

Parallel to Harris, a few years ago, comments of mine on the TESL-L listserv on plagiarism were posted on the ESL MiniConference NewsLetter. In brief, my point was that plagiarism is a cultural phenomenon, not a moral issue. Thus, in addition to doing exercises related to plagiarism, it would be helpful for our students to investigate the warrants and values that lie behind various contexts and situations (e.g., how having a ghost writer is not considered plagiairism, and so on), so that they can understand better the construct of plagiarism as perceived through academic and other lenses.

Friday at the TESOL conference was blog day: I attended four sessions on blogs, all interesting. I have a few highlights on two sessions, followed by notes on Joel Bloch's work.

Charles Schroen, a professor of English at Geogia Perimeter College, uses blogs in his courses to expand the course outside the classroom and to promote interaction. He crafts the blog assignments so that they build in complexity. Students (provided with detailed instructions online) begin with creating a blog outside of class. After several assignments of posting, he begins having them interact with a simple activity of going to 5 classmates' blogs, finding one grammatically correct sentence, and noting in the comments the one thought to be correct. I asked Schroen, "Yes, this creates interaction, but what is it good for?" He responded that it was for getting the students' feet wet for their later assignments that would develop interaction in more substantial ways. Schroen is on target. I think we sometimes forget that students don't have our background, that it's better to ease them into accomplishing future goals.

Christine Meloni, Donald Weasenforth, and Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas presented the results of their research on students using blogs. They had two different groups of students using class blogs, and the difference between the two groups due to teacher influence was tremendous. One teacher evaluated blog entries, participated sometimes in discussions, and talked about the blogs during class when appropriate. The other teacher didn't. The ratio of blog postings for 7 assignments in the classes (former to latter) was 517 to 63, or a little more than an 8:1 ratio. The presenters also noted that other research has shown that blogging can have a detrimental effect on reading and writing (blogging is not academic writing) and that critical evaluation is made more difficult due to being innundated with information. Technology is not neutral.

Besides the presentation sessions, I went to Joel Bloch's discussion session on blogs. Although we didn't discuss them, he had a list of ten questions/statements, which are posted at his TESOL blog. The first on on the list is, "Technology is never neutral; it affects the writing process and is affected by the writing process." He also has posted on his blog podcasts of his papers at TESOL 2006, one on "Intercultural Rhetoric and ESL/EFL Writing: Cyberspace: The Search for Intercultural Rhetoric Online" and the other one titled "The Institution and Globalization of Plagiarism: Bringing Students' Voices into the Debate over Plagiarism in the Academy."

Google now offers RSS and Atom feeds. Remembering previous entries on public domain, copyright, and "intellectual property" rights, note their terms of use:

We invite you to make noncommercial use of Google's RSS and Atom feeds on your website subject to these terms, Google's Terms of Service, and the Google News Terms of Service. If you incorporate our feeds onto your website, please also:

  1. attribute the feeds to Google News.
  2. attribute each news item to its provider, using the provider name as it appears in the Google News feed.
  3. include a link to the Google News cluster of related articles for each news item, using the link provided in the Google News feed.
  4. identify the search terms used to generate the feed.

We reserve all rights in and to the Google and Google News marks. We also reserve the right to terminate any use of the feeds on grounds that we deem appropriate. You may not redistribute Google's feeds.

John Willinsky, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, argues that we should treat "intellectual property as public goods."

With the use of open source code, no less than with scholarly work, the property right at issue is almost entirely a matter of respecting the authorship of the original work. ... One of the intellectual properties of scholarly work is its reflection on how ideas take shape among groups of people over time. The scholarship’s value, in turn, is entirely determined by those who later come to utilize and then build upon a given property without remittance to the original author, beyond this acknowledgement. Such an approach to property, to return to an earlier point, is clearly not about ownership, in the common sense of a right to exclude."

The difference between Willinsky's persepctive and that of arguing for "everything is free" on the Internet is that of crediting one's sources.

Question: If there should be no intellectual property right/ownership, why should there be an attribution responsibility? How might the relational models be used here?

The Internet is influencing academia, moving professors to "market" their "intellectual property." Michael J. Bugeja, director of the journalism school at Iowa State University, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education,

For better or worse, the Internet is playing a larger role in editorial decisions about books and in promotion and tenure evaluations. It is commonplace for external reviewers to Google Web sites or troll databases before rendering their decisions on behalf of publishing houses and institutions.

Search committees also are using the Web to evaluate the writing or scholarship of job applicants before inviting them to on-campus interviews.

Bugeia's advises academics to "market" themselves and their "intellectual property by setting up sites for their books and research, and creating their own "academic brand."

Supporting Sally Chandler's thoughts in the entry below, Bugeia writes,

If you're considering a book site, you should realize the convention of the Internet: People expect things for free. This is not the medium for professors concerned about copyright issues or intellectual property. If you're in that crowd, you won't easily share your pedagogies or methodologies so your site will be static -- or worse, will seem purely self-promotional.

Even so, the "free-for-all" attitude on Internet content is still in flux. Perhaps, the best example of common property knowledge is that of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and maintained by volunteers. Recently, a Reuters article (via Kairosnews) reports that it has been subjected to vandalism. Its cofounder Jimmy Wales says that they plan to

impose stricter editorial rules to prevent vandalism of its content.

The interaction of Internet freedom with vandalism and content theft (along with media companies and others' influence) may result in the emergence of a much less free Internet, even for the digital generation.

Sally Chandler, a colleague from the English Department here at Kean University, is working with two undergraduate research partners, Jacklyn Lopez and Joshua Burnett, on a project which explores differences between "insiders" (members of the internet generation) and "newcomers" (members of print generation). She sees ownership and digital generations somewhat differently. She says that her reading and research indicates that:

individuals whose experiences in digital spaces have influenced their mindsets do hold a different perspective with respect to the ownership of ideas. This is not to say that members of the internet generation do not bring conventional assumptions about ownership to most of their relationships in the material world, but it is to say that they have very different assumptions values and beliefs (mindsets) regarding how and for what uses ideas and products can/should be legitimately owned in virtual spaces. Insiders' ideas about ownership are qualitatively different from the ideas embedded in xeroxing pages of a book or copying a tape for a friend, which are common to the print generation.

These differences have resulted in "the creation of open code, shareware, creative commons, and other vehicles which allow respectful and "free" use of  other's ideas and conceptual creations. For those interested in pursuing this topic, she mentioned work by Richard Lanham, Manual Castells, Colin Lanshear and Michele Knobel, and John Perry Barlow. 

Two online sources to check out include John Perry Barlow's "The Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace" and Lawrence Lessig's blog.

Her main point was that

our mindsets are the products of our experiences, and those of us who are in the print generation bring patterns for thinking and behaving to digital spaces which are suitable to the material world, but which may or may not make sense in the virtual world.  As pointed out in Barlow's Declaration, conceptions of ownership developed in a material economy of scarcity where goods get used up and are limited, are not applicable in a world of infinite resources where use generates value and access increases use.

It's hard to imagine that one's experiences, in cyberspace or otherwise, do not have consequences. I'll read and think some more on this issue.

Much has been made of public domain attitude of the digital generation. That is, unlike those growing up with print, those growing up on the Internet seem to think that all is in the public domain, free for downloading and appropriating for one's own use. Remember the Napster controversy.

I believe that the "digital" attitude is more one of appearance than of substance. Based on my own observations of ten enlisted years in the military and more years elsewhere, the print generation felt and feels no compunction about copying audio and video cassettes from friends and others. The psychology of "downloaders" is the same as that of "copiers"; what has changed is the tremendous volume involved due to electronic ease, and thus an illusion that the digital generation's attitude toward public domain differs from the print generation. (Mia Zamora, my colleague, helped me clarify my thoughts on this "attitude.")

On my other blog ESL Writing & Technology ("Blog content theft," Aug 2), I wrote that Duncan Riley and others are dealing with the problem of websites re-publishing entire articles en masse, considering it to be theft. In another entry on my other blog ("Understanding links," July 26, 2005), I wrote that the concept of giving credit "comes to life naturally when ownership of writing is real as opposed to course requirements."

Putting time and effort into one's work, whether one is of the digital or print generation, creates a sense of ownership that removes one's work from the public domain. Back to the Napster controversy. Those who felt they had the right to download freely did so because they had not "worked," whether at composing music (or writing sufficiently from their own resources). Consequently, they had no sense of ownership and so did not grant ownership to others. Thus, rather than a difference of generations, the so-called "public domainness" of the digital generation is more likely a difference of ownership.

Of course, downloading music digitally and physically copying audio and video cassettes is not exactly the same with respect to the notion of ownership. That is, once people paid for a cassette, they had ownership and perhaps felt (usually?) that they had the right to copy for personal use and, by extrapolation, the right to give copies to others, although the latter was illegal. That's a point I'll need to consider some more.

If we consider this notion of "public domainness" from the framework of Alan Fiske's social relational models (community sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing), those that claim all of the Internet is public domain might be thought to be engaging in a community sharing model, all property belongs to the community without regard to creatorship, while the owners are engaged in a market pricing model in which people interact according to "values determined by a market system.". Consequently, the difference between owners and users in the relational model being used leads to conflict. (In the case of the cassette age, both owners and users may have used a market pricing model but disagree on the what was actually transferred in the transaction.) Probably, however, the conflict is between a market pricing model and an asocial model. In an asocial model, people disregard the social relational models, treating others as objects, as means to an end, not as human beings. Consequently, by treating the owners of web content as objects rather than human beings (which is made easier when the owners are often "impersonal" companies), web users take web content as if it belonged to no one.

From this perspective of social relational models, the print and digital generations are the same: Owners are insisting on a market pricing model of interaction, while consumers are operating asocially. The same psychological and social mechanisms are at work. Not enough time has gone by for a truly different culture to emerge with respect to attitude toward the "public domain."