Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Do we plagiarize inadvertently?

This morning I read a blog post from Inside Higher Ed’s University Diaries. This one is called Plagiarism: Yours, Mine, and Ayres’ and concerns the apparent double standard where students receive severe punishment for getting caught plagiarizing but where highly visible faculty and administrators who have been found plagiarizing seemingly get off scot-free. The tone of the post is righteous indignation. And for some reason that bothered me, not about the faculty and administrators named in the piece and the sins they have committed, but rather on the question of how far from the norm they have strayed. If you recall the film, Breaking Away, I feel a bit like Dave Stoller, before he rode in the race with the Italian team where one of them rammed his tire pump into the spokes on Dave’s bike, forcing him to fall hard and drop out of the race, only to proclaim to his dad later that evening something to the effect, “They all cheat. I just didn’t know.”

On this plagiarism question, I just don’t know too. I’m not even sure about my own behavior. So I don’t think it a trivial question to ask. Let me illustrate what the problem is and then make some guesses on how to find the slippery slope.

First, having written a modest number of Economics papers published in refereed Economics Journals, plagiarism and correct citation in this case is a comparatively easy matter. A standard part of the writing is a literature review section and one covers the pieces that preceded the current work there. The incentives are in line to get the citations right – citations are one measure of influence of the work and there is a quid pro quo of sorts in citation, but really one needs to cite broadly to show referees that the author understands the relevant literature and to place the contribution correctly within that work. The only possible issue here is with comparatively new work that may still itself be under review. In any event, I’m not thinking about traditional journal publishing or academic book writing in asking my question.

I’m thinking about blogging, such as this blog. With informal publication of this sort, the set of potential sources is huge, one doesn’t typically try to do anything like a literature review, and there is no referee to please or clear standards to meet regarding citation. But that is not the real problem. The issue is how we get information nowadays. We are bombarded with information from a variety of sources: email, Web sites, radio and TV, information that is pushed at us by friends, colleagues, and business relations; information that we actively seek out on our own; and then all the follow up information after we have learned something and want to learn some more. Further, much if not most of this information is gathered with no intent whatsoever to write about it. Instead, we get the information to “keep up” or perhaps so we can feel on par when we engage in conversation where some of the information may come up in passing. Most of us are in this boat.

When I start to write a blog post there is something that triggers that main idea and I’m aware of that something, so that I cite by linking to the source if at all possible. But then a related idea might occur to me. I say to myself, “where did I see that?” And if I’m lucky I can do a Google search or two and find the source that triggered the related idea. Then I link to it. But sometimes I’m not so lucky and now there is an ethical choice to be made – mention the idea but with some faint disclaimer like, “I know I read this somewhere” or something else to that effect just to show that I don’t mean to plagiarize but I also don’t want to put in the research time needed to find the source, mention the idea without any disclaimer whatsoever with the intent most likely simply to make it cleaner reading since the disclaimer is a sidebar and not the topic of discussion, or choose not to include the idea in the post because one should not make claims that can’t be substantiated.

I believe that I do each one of these on occasion. I don’t have a rule book to follow and simply make some judgment at the time (based on what I’m not sure) as to which is the most appropriate. I have no sense of how frequently this occurs. One doesn’t set out to write something with sources that can’t be identified. And it’s not something I fixate on. There are a variety of other small transgressions I make quite regularly – I jaywalk around campus, indeed I do it deliberately sometimes so I can retain my New York roots while at Illinois – at home I believe we violate a codicil to our community association’s bylaws in that the size of our satellite dish is too large – and a bunch more of this sort of thing that are in the mild if not totally benign category. Life is too short to worry about this stuff. But what stuff should it be that we do worry about?

And that gets us back to plagiarism. I have to conclude that I’ve done it on occasion in this blog, though I don’t know when. Certainly, I was not trying to cheat. Nobody is requiring me to write a blog post. And, at least directly, I make no profit from the activity. But do I always cite my sources? Probably not. Should anything be done about that? I hope not. I’m not sure what could be done that makes sense. My inkling is to put this in the mild category and not worry about it, but seeing stones thrown about plagiarism as in that Inside Higher Ed blog, I’m not entirely comfortable with that answer.

Yesterday in my support role for the course management system used by instructors in my college, I read the citation policy as stated in one particular course. There was very strong language used, akin to a Do Not Trespass notice. If I might get shot at by the owner of the private property, I’ll obey the no trespassing notice, no question about that. But if there are strong rules that are mostly self-policed my adherence to them will be adjusted to my personal sense of reasonable behavior and in my world view a modest level of violation is typically ok, especially if there is no apparent harm.

In general, we don’t educate students with the aim to achieve an acceptable norm. Instead we give them absolute norms and then fret when we witness egregious violations. In the case of plagiarism, in particular, we may not be aware of our own behavior, think only of our scholarly publishing and not at all of our informal communication. Those distinctions may mean less to our students. For them, the rules of citation may seem arbitrary. What larger lessons do they learn when we make them follow the rules this way? I don’t know but I do know how I’d react if I were in their shoes.

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