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In the age of “Retweet” and “Share”, do students really know where the plagiarism line is?

did i plagiarize

From lifehacker.com

Recent frustrations with students pulling work from the web has me wondering.

At first, I was adamant that they must know. I teach a 300- or 400-level writing course. Surely they must know by now what plagiarism is. They’ve had at least two other writing courses before mine as part of their general education requirements, and yet, the issue plagues them still…at this level.

I’ve tried the “head-them-off-at-the-pass” approach. I tell them at the beginning of the term, “I’m a professional researcher. Please don’t think that if you find something online I can’t or won’t. Because I can, and I will. And, I’m sharp enough to know when a junior in college produces something versus when a professional does.” Yet, multiple times this term I’ve received submissions from students that have clearly come from an online source. Documentation from which students lift copy, images, and organization. Sure, they edit the text a bit, but 80 to 90 percent of the content comes from someone else, somewhere else. It’s incredibly frustrating.

My husband, who always plays devil’s advocate, meets my frustration with, “Are you sure they know?” To which I respond, “Yeah, they know. Of course they know. Come on.” But do they? Maybe I’ve been answering that question with my academic blinders on instead of taking a minute to really consider where my students are coming from.

This weekend a comment on a Facebook post really got me wondering if maybe in this age, students really don’t know where the line is. Recently on a Facebook news article, someone posted a pretty interesting and amusing comment. Someone else replied to that comment with, “Great comment. Definitely stealing that.” I dismissed it at first. But when I reviewed a student assignment this week that was clearly lifted from another published text, I returned to that comment. If students live and communicate in the world of retweets and copied posts (which rarely cite source other than through its label of “Retweet” or “Share”), do they really understand where to draw the line on reusing information? How would they? Do we talk about plagiarism in the context of this age of recycled content? Some I’m sure do. But, I don’t.

Check out this list of “What plagiarism is” from plagiarism.org:

  • Turning in someone else’s work as your own
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • Changing word but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not

Now, consider this list given our use of social media. How often do we use quotation marks? How often do we provide a source? How often do we change content? Not often. But, again, those of us made within higher ed get the difference. But for those not, like our students, do they?

So, maybe it’s time for a refresher. Not just of my students and what plagiarism is. But to my explanation of it. It’s time for me to change the lens through which my students view “copying” work. In our academic world, we attribute everything to the original author. In the social media world, that often doesn’t happen. It’s time to show our students where their two worlds collide. Where is it okay to copy and paste, and where is it not?

So, I’m back to benefit of the doubt, and I’ll be revisiting this topic in my courses in a new context. Maybe this visual from lifehacker.com is a great start to that conversation.

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