General Question

iamthemob's avatar

In the digital age, should plagiarism matter in academic paper and research publication?

Asked by iamthemob (17147points) October 8th, 2010

In law school, plagiarism was a big deal – and an easy trap to fall into, as writing a clear explanation of the legal background of a particular issue or court case is best done by copying and pasting it, and then working out a paraphrasing of it. We were often warned, though, that we needed to be sure that we kept track and weren’t forgetting to reword anything.

As a practicing attorney, it still mattered a little – but not nearly as much. We are constantly told not to “reinvent the wheel” when writing memoranda for a client or for other attorneys. Therefore, background is often lifted nearly word for word from previous memos, or from treatises.

Internet blog and news resources provide us an infinite (practically) amount of written information we can either use as our basis for background writing – or, we can do like we do here and link out to information that’s the best summarization. Wikipedia, as it is subject to more and better review, may be a way to do this as well.

As we are seeing more and more “digital natives” entering college, and producing research product, should we be concerned any longer with plagiarism in the sense of the “don’t copy and paste” model? As long as the text is attributed to the original source, shouldn’t we be teaching our students practices that have been essential in the professional world and are more and more important as we work in a 24-hour constant updated news cycle environment? Should we be looking at our copyright laws when it comes to print sources with this in mind?

Essentially, why shouldn’t we copy and paste, if there’s a reason not to?

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47 Answers

meiosis's avatar

Plagiarism matters, in academic circles at least, because the purpose of being an undergraduate isn’t necessarily to learn knowledge, but to develop one’s brain to be able to absorb information and, from that, produce thoughtful analysis. Merely copying another’s work will not help in this endeavour.

In higher academic cirlces, plagiarism matters because research students are expected to contribute to the body of knowledge, which again requires original work and thought.

iamthemob's avatar

@meiosis

As for the undergraduate – I feel like those skills should be taught in high school. But practically, you’re right…but the type of information I’m talking about still requires that the student put it in some organized condition, and to add original thought to it to show a reasoned understanding.

In the graduate context – again, the student or researcher still needs to attribute the background to the original author, and then state his or her new or original interpretation. The above references only the background – what leads the new author to his or her novel conclusions.

Lve's avatar

In my understanding, copy-paste is only plagiarism when you don’t attribute your text to the source correctly. Teachers at my university even warn against paraphrasing without at least putting in a correct reference.

As a Master’s student writing my final thesis, I am encouraged by my teachers to use as many sources as possible to build up a sensible argument. Paraphrasing is preferred cause it makes you really think about what you are writing down, since you have to reword it. A simple copy-paste would be too easy. With this thesis I have to show my teachers I understand the information I have read and can use it to construct my own conclusions, which have to add something to the field I am researching.

After university this will undoubtedly be different, but I think it will remain important for students in university to avoid copy-paste to help develop their skills.

MissAnthrope's avatar

If students are allowed to simply copy and paste, where is their work and why should they get credit? It’s not their work, they didn’t take the time to write it all out, and I feel it’s a pretty lazy practice overall. Part of the reason you’re made to research and write a bunch of bullshit papers is not because the papers are important, it’s the whole researching, thinking, writing, attention to the technical aspects of your field’s paper-writing rules, etc.

If they include attribution, it’s not plagiarism. However, after having attended WVU for 3 years, I found it was very common for students to do a Google search and copy and paste without attribution. This practice was so rampant that professors now have tools to deal with it—there are websites for checking a paper’s contents against material on the internet as well as books, journals, and so on.

Lightlyseared's avatar

Yes and bear in mind in the digital age it’s a damn sight easier to detect.

iamthemob's avatar

@Lve

Paraphrasing is preferred cause it makes you really think about what you are writing down, since you have to reword it.

Does it do anything more significant that isn’t accomplished already by the initial reading and gathering of the material? Since so much is done on the computer, I remember hopping in and changing a few words, moving sentences, etc., moreso than fully transcribing and changing the text. I feel like this rote behavior doesn’t really contribute to understanding…

iamthemob's avatar

@MissAnthrope

When you talk about attribution, do you mean also that these passages should be in quotations?

In the legal context, we weren’t allowed to use long-winded quotes.

Allowing for the cut-and-paste procedures wouldn’t mean people would automatically resort to it by default. There is generally something that needs to be changed.

Lightlyseared's avatar

@iamthemob paraphrasing is not changing a few words and cutting and pasting the odd sentence. It demonstrates that you understand the material you are discussing and can explain the concepts to someone else.

iamthemob's avatar

@Lightlyseared

How does it do that any more than drawing a conclusion from the information already presented that previously had gone unnoticed, or some other form of novel contribution?

If the conclusion logically follows from the previous material, than it should be inferred that the author understood the material leading up to the conclusion.

Lve's avatar

@iamthemob That might be true, but it all depends on what your teacher/supervisor will accept as being good enough. Like @Lightlyseared said, paraphrasing is not just about moving words around.

Also If the conclusion logically follows from the previous material, than it should be inferred that the author understood the material leading up to the conclusion.
Although that could be true, that is not the only goal when writing a research paper. It is not necessarily most important what you write, but the process of how you wrote it.

lucifer's avatar

Although its easier to Plagiarize with the coming of the digital age (Assignment to submit ? No Worries, there’s always Google), its also easier to get caught… So yeah, I totally think laws regarding the same should be stringent and strict with defectors. Intellectual Property is the new “Real Estate” of the 21st century and its up to each of us to protect our own.

laureth's avatar

These memos and such that you essentially use as templates over and over again – are they your own, previous work?

I think in this academic context, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and even though the information might not be 100% original, what we have to encourage is feeding on the information, digestion, and output of a new product to show that some learning (nutrition) has been absorbed by the student. Despite the horrible image there, I would say that taking dinner and just dumping it directly into the toilet (copy/paste style) doesn’t have quite the net gain for the person involved.

Maybe a memo-copying class (or section of a class – “Legal life skills” or something – could be taught, but in the meantime, I wouldn’t make it OK to just copy papers willy-nilly. With the erosion of education ever since “No Child Left Behind” and tax/funding cuts eviscerated the schools, this may be one of the few places left where they actually, y’know, get some schoolin’.

marinelife's avatar

Of course it matters. Actually formulating the arguments for a piece of writing come from doing the original research and writing.

iamthemob's avatar

It is not necessarily most important what you write, but the process of how you wrote it.

I agree – however, I don’t feel like a cut-and-paste method is better or worse than a paraphrasing one.

Consider: I’m writing a paper on Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I’ve concluded that Justice Thurgood Marshall’s consistent and principled stand on the issue represents an appropriate model for analysis of all issues that fall under the Eighth Amendment in that the Bill of Rights, generally and most specifically here, should be examined from the position that the Supreme Court is the branch empowering the minority opinion, and therefore evolving standards can be understood from the position of the most enlightened and not the democratic whole.

I have found four pages of text that cover the SCOTUS analysis of the Eighth Amendment generally. I have checked the citations for the veracity, and there is no need to update as Thurgood Marshall has long since retired from the court. I take the pages, in their entirety, and cut and paste them into the first part of my paper, attributing the entire bit to the original author, and then begin my analysis, which requires all my own writing (excepting, of course, quotations from the cases themselves.

Should this be inappropriate? If so, where’s the additional intellectual rigor in re-writing those four pages?

iamthemob's avatar

These memos and such that you essentially use as templates over and over again – are they your own, previous work?

Almost never. And I know that my work will be used and reused as it stands. But each time it is, the facts will be totally different (or at least slightly different), and the law may have to be updated.

But I don’t really see where the intellectual dishonesty is in this method…

iamthemob's avatar

Although its easier to Plagiarize with the coming of the digital age (Assignment to submit ? No Worries, there’s always Google), its also easier to get caught… So yeah, I totally think laws regarding the same should be stringent and strict with defectors. Intellectual Property is the new “Real Estate” of the 21st century and its up to each of us to protect our own.

But this begs the question – why are we exerting effort protecting/checking to see whether verbatim language in the least intellectually rigorous parts of papers (e.g., “here’s the story thus far”) is verbatim? We should see whether it’s accurate and up-to-date, and then concentrate on the analysis and conclusions of the author.

Lightlyseared's avatar

The story so far (as you put it) is not the least intellectually rigorous part of a paper. Looking at the evidence so far assimilating it and working out there is a hole or where to go from there is the hard bit. Any one can organise a double blind ethically aproved randomised controlled trial (I mean pretty much every BSc worth the money demands the student carry one out for their final dissertation). Working out what you going to look at and why is always the hardest bit.

iamthemob's avatar

@Lightlyseared

You’re right – I meant more that the intellectual work, at that point, has already been done. Why saddle the author with the busy-work of making sure that it wasn’t said EXACTLY as it was before?

That’s why I think that paraphrasing is more of a burden, and takes up valuable time that could be spent on argument, analysis, etc.

Lightlyseared's avatar

Yes but the way the researcher understands the work to date shapes how they think about the problem at hand and by looking at how they’ve structured their initial argument helps you to understand that. Pretty much any scientific paper can be interpreted in more than one way. One person may look at the results and except them another may look at them, see a flaw in the statistics and refute them. This will form the basis of their argument and it’s much easier and better to say this in your own words then repeat vast chunks of text. If I want to look up the original paper and see if I agree with how it has been interpreted it I will, but putting it in to the actual paper, however easy that may be these days, doesnt make the argument easier to understand.

As for your legal letters that you reuse that is nothing more than good business practice. A lot of the stuff legal firms send out is pretty standard so it makes sense not to redo the work. But if your competitors start using your client letters to further their business then that’s an entirely different thing and no doubt legal proceedings would follow (in fact in the UK their is a legal firm suing another for exactly this practice).

Foolaholic's avatar

This is a great question! Much Lurve!

Anyway, I would say that, while there is nothing inherently wrong in copying and pasting something, it is wrong to call that information yours. As an English major, it seems like the point of the issue is not the concern that people are stealing material as much as the concern that people know how to properly reference. Say you want to make a huge chuck of text out of a Hemingway novel to prove a point. Go ahead and do it, but not without explicating it properly. I can’t speak to the legal system, but it terms of literary work, it’s all about about showing that you can explain the importance of quoted material. If you were to take the quote as empirical evidence without any introduction or explication, that’s plagiarism. If you take the quote and introduce it as someone else’s work and explain why it works in your context, that’s perfectly fine.

Lightlyseared's avatar

Also, and more to the point, if the work is already done then why not let the author write down what they’ve done. Why saddle them with having to copy and paste vast chunks of text together.

iamthemob's avatar

But if your competitors start using your client letters to further their business then that’s an entirely different thing and no doubt legal proceedings would follow (in fact in the UK their is a legal firm suing another for exactly this practice).

I’m sure there are mostly confidentiality concerns here…but maybe a trade secret or two. ;-)

But should it be based on an argument that one person is unfairly profitting from the thought of another? I think, and I’m open to argument on this, that we would increase our intellectual production if we approached research and publication from an open-source model (e.g., the basics are already established in the code, and many people are working out the bug issues at the same time).

iamthemob's avatar

@Foolaholic

I agree – I think everyone here thinks that the pages/text should be attributed to the original author. But I feel like we need to let this hold on our IP go so that we can get better ideas – a creative commons licensing approach.

Foolaholic's avatar

@iamthemob

I completely agree. The current systems in place to properly cite materials (formats like MLA, APA, Chicago, Turbain, the list goes on and on) are absolutely ridiculous. I’ve been looking into Creative Commons licensing recently, and I am completely of the belief that bureaucratic processes like proper citation should be based on something much simpler and universal.

iamthemob's avatar

Considering that we’re becoming more and more digital – I’m thinking that we might want to look toward a wikipedia-type treatise model, with hyperlinks out to the supporting documents instead of citation.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It certainly matters and will matter to me, when I become a professor.

iamthemob's avatar

Why? Can’t there be a model for recognition of your unique contribution that would be relevant for any tenure issues?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@iamthemob I mean, in terms of my students’ work.

lillycoyote's avatar

Of course plagiarism matters. I’m not sure I understand the question. In your details: If the text you “paste” is attributed to the source it would be the same as quoting a source. That’s always been acceptable. And reusing wording in your own memos or with the permission of some else at the firm is not plagiarism. You can’t plagiarize yourself. Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as your own. It has to matter.

I confess I have not read all the previous posts on this thread. Sorry

iamthemob's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir

But why would this type of work, by necessity, affect your students’ work.

iamthemob's avatar

@lillycoyote – you should definitely read through ;-)

lillycoyote's avatar

@iamthemob If I understand what you’re saying, there’s another side to this, I think, and that is consideration for you reader; in doing things a certain way in service of clarity of communication. There’s a lot of value in a clean, clear and precise presentation when you write a paper, thesis or article. I don’t want to read a paper that is cluttered up with huge chunks of pasted in text.

Say I’m interested in your paper on Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and you

”… have found four pages of text that cover the SCOTUS analysis of the Eighth Amendment generally. I have checked the citations for the veracity, and there is no need to update as Thurgood Marshall has long since retired from the court. I take the pages, in their entirety, and cut and paste them into the first part of my paper, attributing the entire bit to the original author, and then begin my analysis, which requires all my own writing (excepting, of course, quotations from the cases themselves”

I don’t want that. What I would prefer is that you summarize and if I’m familiar with the case I can say either “that pretty much sums it up” or “this guys an idiot” and move on and if I’m not familiar with the case I can go to the source, because you’ve cited it, and check it out for myself. I don’t want to have go through your paper with a machete, cutting through great walls of pasted text to get to whatever it is that is the meat of it, whatever it is that you are trying to say.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@iamthemob Because they can interpret not c+p, instead.

MissAnthrope's avatar

@iamthemob – In answer to your question—more or less, as you should give credit for someone else’s research/ideas if you use them. I know different fields have different requirements; in the sciences, it was drilled into our heads that copy and pasting and changing some words is a type of plagiarism and required attribution.

iamthemob's avatar

@lillycoyote

I can’t assume knowledge from the reader – the points have to be backed up. I was working under the assumption that the four pages were the most concise and comprehensive way of stating it. the citation required, and the level of support required, in a legal analysis is pretty extensive…so this wouldn’t be cluttered – it would be clean and efficient, and to boot efficiently done because it could be done with a cut ant paste.

iamthemob's avatar

@MissAnthrope

It is a type of plagiarism – but should we worry about it? I think just a cut and past and a reference to the author clears up a lot of nitpicky changes that don’t really require substantive investment in the material….

lillycoyote's avatar

@iamthemob I didn’t say you could assume knowledge from the reader. I said that if I’m familiar with the case I could read your summary or statement about it and move on and if I’m not familiar with the case I could check the source in your citation. I understand how to write a paper, that your argument and your points need to be “backed up.” I guess if you’re saying you couldn’t summarize the analysis or whatever in less than the four pages it would take of text pasted from elsewhere, and you cite the source and you don’t think the pasting of the text seems lazy, then there’s no reason not to do it, I guess, at least in terms of the cluttered communication issue.

MissAnthrope's avatar

@iamthemob – Yes, we should. Stealing is stealing. Claiming someone else’s time, work, and effort as your own is wrong. When you have an assignment to write a paper and most of what you turn in isn’t even your work, why should you get credit?

iamthemob's avatar

@MissAnthrope

You seem to be assuming, though, that what would be turned in ISN’T their work for the most significant parts. Of course, there’s a difference between not contributing anything of interest yourself and relying on someone else who’s done the background work well.

I am a strong supporter of open access to digital music and visual media. The market is adjusting to that model. I feel like it’s hypocritical not to approach academic writing in the same way – and in fact, scientific projects like open-source software and the SETI scans are collaborative and therefore much more successful and innovative than they would be if we took a protectionist approach to our product. Open source software folks pushed from the beginning the ancillary markets in which they would be making profit in order to ensure that people weren’t just giving work away for free.

MissAnthrope's avatar

@iamthemob – I see what you’re saying, but I still disagree. Knowledge is fairly open-source these days with the internet, but it’s still intellectual property. You don’t share a song with someone without mentioning who created it, right? Same deal with using someone’s ideas and research.

I’m a photographer and it’s fine if someone likes one of my photos enough to use it, but that is my time, creativity, and talent and I would very much like to be mentioned. To me, it’s the same as plagiarism and giving attribution where it’s due.

iamthemob's avatar

@MissAnthrope

I’m confused – where did it say that these parts wouldn’t be attributed to the original author?

MissAnthrope's avatar

@iamthemob – Well, that is what plagiarism is..

mattbrowne's avatar

Plagiarism always matters, but so does not reinventing the wheel. That’s what quotations are for naming the source.

iamthemob's avatar

@mattbrowne

But why work with quotations at all? I think a lot of my issue has to deal with the conventions in MLA, Bluebook, and other academic formatting that requires citing to be done a certain way. It seems more and more superfluous.

mattbrowne's avatar

@iamthemob – Because quotations are extremely powerful and they often evoke associations. To give you an example:

I have a dream.

What happened when you read this?

I’d like to imagine what could happen in the future. It is my deepest wish that…

What’s the problem with the second version?

iamthemob's avatar

@mattbrowne

Of course – but that’s not the type of borrowing that I’m talking about. Stating something in a profound way is different from quoting what has been efficiently (and not profoundly) stated before.

kizo's avatar

i dont think it should matter at all, almost everything there is to know or anyone would ask about has been written down by someone already!

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