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Plagiarism, intellectual property, and creative story construction

Paul Grobstein's picture

I don't doubt that "plagiarism" is a persistent problem that is exacerbated in the "digital age" (see Plagiarism lines blur for students in digitial age).  I do think though that it is worth noticing that there are two somewhat different issues at stake in thinking about "plagiarism," and to highlight, particularly in educational contexts, the one that often gets less attention.

The more commonly expressed concern has to do with "intellectual property."  It is of course "cheating" to pass off materials created by others as if they were one's own.  To put it slightly differently, writers ought to be aware of the contributions others have made to their own creations and give credit to those on whose shoulders they are standing.  There is, of course, a certain fuzziness in this mandate, and the digital age has and inevitably will continue to increase the fuzziness.  We are all of us all the time "standing on the shoulders of others," and so its not at all unreasonable for students to be sometimes puzzled about the need to give to give credit for "common knowledge" and when/how to go about doing it.  And there is some justice to the position that creative work always "borrows from the vortex of information to mash up" something new.   That there is fuzziness does not of course diminish the inappropriateness of writing in which one deliberately or even inadvertently "passes off materials created by others as if they were one's own."  And so many people are combating plagiarism by themselves using the tools of the digital age to see whether this has occurred.

My own sense is that while there is an intellectual property issue involved in "plagiarism," there is also something else that is worth paying at least as much attention to and investing at least as much energy to combat.  Students, and others, frequently approach writing as something they need to do in order to complete an assignment mandated by others.  In this context, the issue of intellectual property frequently, no matter how undesirably, seems (consciously or unconsciously) less important than getting the assignment done. What is being missed, of course, is the importance of writing as an individual constructive activity, as a process of taking existing material and using it to generate a distinctive perspective of one's own.  The failure to do this is, in my mind, at least as significant in "plagiarism" as is offense against intellectual property. One's writing should be an idiosyncratic expression of one's own distinctive understanding, and this means, among other things, saying things in one's own words.

From this perspective, the challenge offered by "plagiarism" is not simply that of teaching people to respect the intellectual property of others but of themselves as well.  And it requires not only detecting violations of intellectual property rights and punishing perpetrators for it but emphasizing the importance in writing of "an idiosyncratic expression of one's own distinctive understandings" and creating an environment that encourages that.  To the extent we mandate writing from others (or ourselves) that doesn't require the creation of new, distinctive understandings, we contribute to the likelihood of  plagiarism.  To the extent we insist on people writing in ways that require them to construct for themselves new and distinctive understandings (cf Evolution of science education as story telling and story revising), we make plagiarism less likely.  The plagiarism problem and solution is not only in others but also in ourselves.





Deborah Hazen's picture

Science Journaling: Opportunity to Own the Evolving Perspective?

I just returned from a week of teacher workshops held at Penn State and funded by NASA, Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, the Eberly College of Science, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and other supporters. One of our topics was science note booking. Teachers were encouraged to understand the structure of the notebook and modify it for use in their classrooms while preserving certain key components of the notebook. Of interest perhaps to this discussion is the place note booking has in being a thinking space. A place to follow a guiding question with beginning ideas (first your own and then those of the whole group), then add expert discussion notes and/or your own data and observations, followed by claims and evidence based on the notes, observations and data, and then a space to reflect back on how your beginning ideas changed and perhaps jot down new "wonderings." We looked at copies of notebooks that were kept by professional scientists and were encouraged to teach our students to see their notebooks as one in the same---never erasing, always maintaining a history of evolving ideas. We were also challenged to teach students how clarifying their thoughts in the notebook would support logical argumentation when they presented their ideas to another student or teacher. Of course the issue of argumentation in science and the nature of theories in science (as always including a degree of uncertainty) came up. We agreed that it is incredibly important to make time each day for the processes evident in science note booking and to encourage students to see argument as productive. We've all seen students race to completion and consensus, rather than engage in reflection or argument, so that they can be finished with an assignment.

On another note, I'll offer that plagiarism is often the product of fear on the part of the student that she/he won't get it right. In our current system of education, the incorrect or incomplete answer is not rewarded. This is contrary to the practice of science where, as Paul has articulated so elegantly when speaking to my students, you learn more (are rewarded) by discovering that your ideas were wrong or incomplete than by always proving yourself correct.

This final thought is still working its way through my brain, but hasn't fully gelled. The current crop of college students are masters of the group project. In order to accommodate strength and weaknesses (i.e. reading levels, organizational skills...) and to ensure smooth running groups, their pre-college teachers formed groups, handed out assignments AND in many cases assigned roles (recorder, timekeeper, artist, presenter, researcher...). It shouldn't be a surprise, given time constraints in the school day, that we create virtual intellectual assembly lines in order to fit the project or inquiry into the class period. The final product/ideas belong to the group, not individuals in the group. A measure of the "right functioning" of the group is the degree to which consensus is reached. Social pressures come into play that prevent any member of the group from disagreeing during the presentation or owning particular ideas. I wonder if this process, an absence of not only time but a de-emphasis of the comprehensive thoughts of the individual in the final product, may be important when considering the fuzziness around common knowledge that Paul describes. If the pattern of your own thoughts is not visible and attributed to you in the group process, the student's earliest and longest exposure to building understanding, as Paul says, "standing on the shoulders of others," then it might be difficult to see the importance of teasing out others' thoughts through the use of attribution of intellectual property.

Paul Grobstein's picture

individual and group stories and educational practices

Like, a lot, your connection between journaling and science as conversation/getting it less wrong instead of right.  Thanks, have added a link to this from the forum at the bsie10 home page so that others can see it.

Very intrigued as well by your connection of this to the plagiarism matter and, in particular your extension to the group work teaching strategy.  Yes, "standing on the shoulders of others" is an important part of science/conversation but, as you point out, it is not enough.  One needs as well to have/contribute one's own voice or one gets only  a flaccid "consensus" without the productive tension of differences between individual and group stories that is necessary for the continuing evolution of both.

Interestingly, the importance of valuing simultaneously both individual and collective stories, without requiring them to be the same, has come up recently in a different but related context, that of evolving sytems and social activism.  See Inception, the Constitution, education, and life itself and forum conversation there, where I've also added a link to these thoughts of yours.  

alesnick's picture

having regard for one's own "intellectual property/ies"

When I was in graduate school studying for my masters degree at St. John's College in Santa Fe, one of my teachers there counseled me to articulate my ideas more slowly and clearly in class.  When I answered that this to me would feel "too assertive," she told me that when a mother runs into the traffic after her child, she is not "being assertive," she is protecting the child.  So I should protect my ideas.  This made a huge impression on me, and helped me. 
It also connects with the foregoing ideas about plagiarism.  Sometimes in the name of rigor and sometimes in the cause of self-assertion, ideas are put forth as generic, as free from the inflection of self.  But really, a more expansively humanistic perspective such as Paul's above reminds us that writing is part of the current of each person's life, as well as of lives held or recorded in common.  In Bahktin's terms, "the internally persuasive word is half ours and half someone else's." Every life is a potential channel for ideas, every person's perspective is . . . a perspective, including our own.  Accommodating this, it seems to me, is a way to bring imagination to bear much more powerfully than it can be brought when judgment, blame, and correction are the order of things.  For another articulation of ideas resonant here, see Paul's Replacing Blame with Generosity in Classrooms, Inquiry, and Culture.

Paul Grobstein's picture

individual stories aren't "misunderstandings"; they're valuable

Very interesting connection between this and some summer institute reflections of Wil's having to do with "misunderstanding" and how to deal with it.  If I'm understanding correctly, you're both saying that "judgement, blame, and correction" is the wrong way to go.  Instead, as Wil puts it, "careful attention to judging stories in the context of the initial problems will help individuals construct more useful as well as articulate stories."  People aren't "misunderstanding."  They are bringing to the table their own individual understandings that can/should be compared/contrasted with other understandings, both individual and collective, in the service of generating new undertandings, again both individual and collective. 

Like too your concern, in the context of plagiarism and otherwise, that "ideas are put forth as generic, as free from the inflection of self."  Yes, ideas need to be understood as never "free from the inflection of self."  Is an interesting issue, one I need to think more about.  My own tendency, of course, is certainly to present ideas without reference to my self, and to think about the ideas of others without reference to particular other selves, to look in both for what is general rather than idiosyncratic.  In reaching for the "objective" perhaps I am contributing to peoples' tendency to mistrust their selfness?  

alesnick's picture

(self)-presentation of ideas

It's really interesting: on the one hand, reaching for the general and "objective" is an important, useful technique in thinking and communicating ideas.  It is useful to reach in this way not in order to arrive at truth, but with the goal of making an interpretation or assertion that is distant enough from immediate contexts to be readily accessible, applicable, and exchangeable. 

At the same time, the presentation of ideas without reference to personal experience and source-contexts is often demanded, and read, as more "scientific," authoritative, and (here we go :), powerful.  And yet, all ideas come from people and places; and all abstractions have experiences (conscious and unconscious, right?) at their core.  Abstractions and generalizations are tools, and so are personal stories.  Sometimes they are tools for different projects, sometimes (maybe more than we typically expect) they are useful in the same project.  When we are in positions of authority or facilitation, I wonder if we need to model both rhetorics and discuss their different uses explicitly as part of inquiry. 

Wil Franklin's picture

misunderstandings, plagiarism and generic assertions

This thread is very interesting indeed. Alice's response made me think of another related issue that I haven't brought up yet.  I noticed something this summer that began to bother me about conversations.  The topics and the opinions began to all sound the same - or at least take on some very common themes.  I guess that is all well and good, perhaps an indication of what was resonating with everyone, but I began to get bored.  I wondered whether it was real agreement I was hearing from the different voices or just some form of apathy.  Voices were not use to or interested in reflecting something back genuine from themselves.  Instead of thinking hard about what something meant in personal terms, it was just easier to re-package the themes that were popping up.  This is where the idea of plagiarism comes in.  When I think of traditional education as the inculcation of students into particular fields of study and disciplines, it seems that an underlying assumption is that we educators actually do want our students to plagiarize to some extent.  I know this is a very loose use of the term, but it highlights for me an interesting question.  How much individuality do educators really want in the classroom... in a discourse.  Chaos theory shows us that too little complexity in a system is boring, too much is incomprehensible, somewhere in the middle is interesting.  And good literature and art is the same way... it must be familiar enough to connect to, but novel enough to excite us.  How do we find this middle ground?  Surely, it starts with letting everyone in on the game.  Let us tell our students that we are bored, are baffled, are just right!  Or is this too honest?