Plagiarism is Dead; Long Live the Retweet: Unpacking an Identity Crisis in Digital Content

Written by
Reviewed by Rebecca Halpern and Sean Hackney
Storming columns” by Riccardo Cuppini; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d”

Alexander Pope’s eighteenth century advice to writers — now known as content producers — has a new relevance for the Internet Age, although in the discussion that follows, a more exact phrasing match might be, “It’s already a meme, but (driven by FOMO) I need to re-tweet it too.”

Beyond citation

Colleges and universities are already under attack for their cost, their student loan programs, their lack of diversity, their food services contracts, their grade inflation, their pampered clients, and their sports programs.

More significantly, I believe, schools are losing an ability to matter, to influence things in the real world. If we are to change this, we academics must begin to rethink the arcane conventions that govern our way of being in this world. The traditional protocols of attribution, vetting, and credentialing have helped to preserve, protect, and maintain a closed and gated academic community. It may be safe, but it is also detached and, in many ways, infantilized and absurd.

It is long since time for academic publishers and tenure and promotion boards to re-examine our “business as usual” in the light of ubiquitous knowledge sources and publication tools. Given a multiplicity of wikipedias, what constitutes credibility and reliability for centers of scholarship and thought? For providers of professional credentials? Who is welcome to contribute to a scholarly field and how should the contribution be evaluated as worthy of consideration by others — and credited when re-used? In what sense are collections of knowledge and archived thoughts relevant to have and to share? Are these collections properly physical, or virtual, or both? Is there any sense in trying to assign “credit” to the shapers of our thoughts, and (as I am interpreting the quotation from Pope in the opening) can/should we separate the source of the idea from the format in which one talented author has chosen to frame it?

The definitions and rules around plagiarism are a good place to start because today’s academy is characterized by a collision of some very big — and unexplored — tectonic plates, many of which are embodied in these rules. We watch as solid, slow moving, hermetic traditions of the academy are challenged by the fluid, fast-moving, and crowd-sourced affordances of contemporary digital media. It is long past time for us to put an end to the miniscule and irrelevant plagiarism wars and begin a more significant reconsideration of what we mean by research, citations, and the respectful integration and communication of information old and new, original and borrowed, tweeted, blogged and podcast, online and oral, read and viewed. It’s time to bury APA, MLA, op. cit., Ibid, et al. — along with the other dead horses they came in on.

It is time to move beyond the gotcha games of traditional citation protocols, admit that each of us can absorb and manipulate only a small portion of what is significant to know and say on any given topic, to stop closing our ears to the voice that does not come bearing a research review chapter. Somehow the “gates” of peer review, the weighting of elite versus popular publication modes and media, and scholarly club memberships must be stripped of their power. We need more diverse books, voices, attitudes, journals, and styles.

Unpacking the absurdities around “plagiarism”

News reports last summer included findings about the ineffectiveness (and inadvertent effectiveness) of popular software programs in use at many academic institutions intended to detect instances of plagiarism in students’ submissions.

Turnitin and others like it promise to protect professors from the embarrassment of awarding high grades to assignments which are not original creations, yet these same professors (alas, myself included) are regularly guilty of awarding high marks to student essays that are virtually exact replicas of our own lecture notes or PowerPoint slides.

Recognizing that my student has clipped and pasted ideas or actual phrases from an academic journal, video, blog, or website without crediting them deserves to be labeled academic dishonesty of the worst sort! Reading my own words and concepts appearing as unattributed “received wisdom” identifies a brilliant follower clearly deserving high accolades, — or at least an A!

Is plagiarism then merely a difference in intent? Wrong when a student finds the answer to my question online, but fine as a wink and nod indicator of club membership or respectful apprenticeship?

Mixtapes and mashups: What is original — the pieces or the form?

The opening quotation from Pope serves as a reminder that the topic of original thinking (as opposed to stealing someone else’s ideas) has been considered by philosophers, artists, and linguists even back in the day when “digital” referenced fingers. Mark Twain consoled Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism in a letter written in 1903:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go farther and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them any where except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

In the role of content producers, like our students, we publish to prove that we, too, are knowledgeable about the work of significant thinkers in our field, and able to combine and express this thinking in new ways that, in the words of Arthur Koestler, create in others “the displacement of attention to something not previously noted, which was irrelevant in the old and is relevant in the new context; the discovery of hidden analogies as a result of the former; the bringing into consciousness of tacit axioms and habits of thought which were implied in the code and taken for granted; the uncovering of what has always been there.”

Newness, therefore, is merely a deliberately caused “trick of the light,” a context in which the tweets, images, and blogs of others are more artfully arranged in order to forge a different meaning — ours. In Pope’s parlance, a new expression of something that may have been generally thought, in fact, changes our understanding in a way that a powerful metaphor unpacks an essential truth about the subject of the comparison. In the postmodern culture of samples and mixtapes, the deliberate repurposing and ironic repetition of other’s words is not plagiarism, it’s intertextuality!

Shibboleths, sacred cows and vested interests

Academic writers are not permitted naked original thoughts — or even naked obvious thoughts. Instead, peer review demands that they first establish their credibility by a thorough repeat of, and genuflection to, all that has gone before. Introductory paragraphs in social sciences journals have become clots of citations crafted to prove that the writer is familiar with the brilliant work of (with any luck) the anonymous peers who are vetting the submission — or at least his or her former teachers and friends. Consider this example from Reading at a Crossroads:

More and more students are asked to find information on the Internet to complete school projects (Eagleton, Guinee and Langlais, 2003; Jones, 2002; Lenhart, Simon, & Graziano, 2001; Metzer, Flanagin, & Zwarun, 2003). … Unfortunately, research shows that students rarely critically read information on the Internet (Fitzgerald, 2000; Flanagin & Metzger, 2007; Grimes & Boening, 2001; Henry, 2007; Hoffman et al., 2003; Kili, Laurinen & Marttunen, 2008; Kuiper et al, 2008a, 2008b; Large & Behesti, 2000; Lorenzen, 2001; Metzger et al., 2003; New Literacies Research Team and Internet Reading Research Group, 2006; Ng & Goldstone, 2002).

True, skeptical academic readers should not be asked to accept just on the writer’s word as radical a concept as, “Teenagers are using the Internet for schoolwork, and they do not typically evaluate what they find there.” Is this a critique of graceless overkill or commentary on the way APA formatting impedes reading flow? Neither; it is, with apologies to the respected authors of the quoted piece, merely a way of pointing out the inherent paradoxes we academics have created for ourselves around the issues of original thinking, substantiating those thoughts, proving that we are members of the insiders club, appropriately reusing the thoughts and research of others, and giving credit to those upon whose thoughts we are building.

One source of difficulty here inheres in the competing purposes of content producer versus content consumer. The producer must establish credibility and prove her knowledge base for a gatekeeping audience while simultaneously communicating a coherent thought. The consumer (presumably) is reading for the thought first, and only secondarily wondering if there are similar thinkers out there and whether they may have slightly different nuances on the same topic. While I am not convinced that hyperlinks can overcome their inherent temptations to distract and derail coherence for online readers, certainly respectful links to the actual work produced by the name in the parenthesis or the note would assist the reader to decide what the op.cit. actually said. And here intellectual property rights and subscription costs emerge. While this issue is litigated, academic print may be digitized, but it will remain constrained, archaic, and increasingly detached from real communicative power.

The collaborative culture and considerations of orality and literacy

In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson repeatedly makes the point that there is frequently no clear answer to the question, “Who was the inventor of…?” or “Who was the first to…?” in terms of the Internet, the mouse, or the graphical user interface. I would add that even in cases where the questions have been answered in textbook canons, the answer is usually not complete and may be politically, racially, gender, or class biased.

Problems of practice are addressed by teams of thinkers, researchers, and workers rather than by lone heroes, and, even when there are identifiable lone heroes, there may be several operating in parallel with no knowledge of each other or deliberately pursuing different answers to the same questions. Further complicating the situation, improvements in communication have increased the role of virtual teams and muddied the dissemination timelines so that the pattern of information sharing becomes a simultaneous, viral web — rather than a chronologically sequential, linear track.

E.A. Havelock, Walter Ong, and Marshall McLuhan are names to be reckoned with in the scholarly consideration of oral and literate cultures, but not enough attention has been paid to complications of language as mediated through technology, which blurs conventional boundaries of written and spoken in significant ways. In the scholarly world, print is still conceptualized as static, two-dimensional, and linear, despite affordances that could actually render it dynamic, multi-dimensional, and recursive, and this “Old Style” print is both privileged and protected in the academy, even as we fail to take advantage of its new powers.

Online reading is constructive and dynamic: while reading for information, clicking across and through a variety of embedded and suggested links, each reader creates a unique (and transient) new text whose reality is physical only in a “follow the clicks” sense. As each reader becomes an author of ephemeral new content, attribution and sharing are problematic until technology can record and transcribe the neural processes as they occur just as writing, sound and video recording overcame the ephemerality of oral and gestural language. Vulcan mind meld, anyone?

In the academic privileging of print, scholarly conversations and interactive collaborations actually occupy much of our learning time and energy even as they are less respected as intellectual sources, and therefore, not credited as the powerful influencers they are. In the typical classroom setting, collaborating teams of students speak, text, research, problem-solve together. If each then submits an assignment for an individual grade, whose thoughts and words are we evaluating? Who are the “authors” of record? As PhD candidates or post-doc members of the research lab, all would expect to be named and credited. They need the citations, after all, for tenure and promotion, the Nobel, or patent considerations.

Here again, the necessary reconsideration of citing sources must move away from the conventional fashion in which print is automatically privileged as the only source that counts. Colleagues and I have experimented with platforms that record and archive live discussions, so that oral contributions to the end product can be accurately sourced. The necessary listening and coding, however, was enormously labor intensive, and participants questioned the impact on their contributions that were or might have been caused by the recording itself. If I were to identify one area for further study in the academy, it would be this re-opening of the complex and nuanced world of language modalities: oral and written, static and changing.

Reading to learn and proving it: The research report

Once upon a time, research skills were taught with index cards to record bibliography entries. The cited texts were static and (at least to a certain extent) limited in number. Middle and high school research paper assignments (even some in higher education classrooms) typically specified the number of required sources and the formats for proper citation. More recently, “progressives” specified that the sources should include a mix of paper and online; while “radicals” played with a mix of formats: YouTube videos and TED talks. MLA and APA police still rule, however, even as the Internet increases available and accessible content at exponential rates, and the real need to teach source and content evaluation supersedes the need to teach note-taking and citation.

The concept of plagiarism as currently managed belongs more easily in the old world, and that its fit into the new and emerging reality is an awkward and uncomfortable one. If we are to marry intellectual honesty with evaluation, might it not make more sense to require that citations be limited to those the writer can identify as meaningful contributors to the work, both positively and negatively, rather than pretending that it is possible to include a mention of everything, however briefly consulted? This could also address the clotting factor: if dozens of researchers say essentially the same thing, the idea achieves high crowdsource status, but it may also cease to be an original finding that should be credited to any one of them. Is the first (perhaps tentative and awkward) appearance in the literature somehow more significant than the more polished and graceful later elaboration? (See Pope, above.) How might citation formats be created that indicate a multiplicity of agreement — suggesting reliability without slowing readability — or damaging a tenure prospect?

The increasing use of within-text hyperlinks and QR codes deserves consideration in academic journals. “I’ve done my homework, here are the shoulders upon which I stand, but feel free to read on coherently to process the idea I am trying to convey.” The flow of this in typical journalism is both more immediate and more honest. The skeptical reader is given not just the name and publication date of the authority quoted, but actual access to the original work for verification (an affordance of the digital age with logistics of copyright and access still somewhat problematic) but an unimpeded linear path to ascertain what I as the constructor of new knowledge have done with these earlier ideas. Authors with nothing to say beyond what has already been said are quickly unmasked.

Literary bricolage: Old components make new messages

“Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Picasso gets the credit for this quote, although I have always wanted to put it into the mouth of T.S. Eliot as an expression and defense of the verbal collages of text and allusion in his works. In an introduction to Postmodern Picture Books from Routledge, Pantaleo and Sipe quote Jerry Flieger’s characteristics of postmodernism, “a questioning of the concept of originality, with an emphasis on citation, iterability, borrowings, intertextuality; [and] a ludic, ironic, or parodic quality corresponding in part to the uneasiness about legitimate or authoritative values.”

Is there a fond lover among us who has not played in the gray world of intellectual property while creating a mix tape? An academic presenter whose point is not enhanced with musical and visual references? A politician whose persuasive stump speech does not rely on the resonance of value-laden memes?

In a series of articles describing a generative literature project, authors Elise Takehana, Johnathan Jena, Matt Ramsden and Natasha Rocci describe the situation this way:

With so many contributors to this compilation of characters and events, the question of authorship in generative literature is difficult to answer. It could be argued that each contributor is an author, or that the creators and orchestrators behind the idea that will later compile the information and intricately connect them into a coherent paratextual novel are the authors. Even the programmers responsible for pulling the project from theory to technological reality or the reader themselves could be considered the author due to the interactivity and choice-based style of reading that will come forth from this endeavor. These blurred borders between creator, author, designer and reader are at play, working for or against each other in the paratextual elements. It’s the navigational choice, the process of working through a generative literature piece based on technology and new media, which affords nearly everyone involved the opportunity to participate as an author.

And then, the robot author: Artificial Intellectual property

Kris Hammond, the creator of Narrative Science, advertises his product with these words:

“We are helping companies operationalize data storytelling with Quill, our advanced natural language generation (NLG) platform. By automatically transforming data into narratives, our artificial intelligence software dramatically reduces the time and energy people spend analyzing, interpreting and explaining data.

Quill starts by understanding the purpose of your communication, identifying the metrics to meet that purpose, performing the analysis to figure out what is most interesting and important, and pulling in the relevant data. The result is a narrative indistinguishable from what a human would write.”

Automated Insights has a competing product called Wordsmith promising similar real language stories from a variety of data, no human analysis needed.

Is it proper to credit the algorithm, and dishonest not to? (One hesitates to offend HAL — or Samantha!)

A New Moore’s Law: Exponential Increases in Content and its Producers and Consumers

One of the important life rules we learned in kindergarten is that it’s wrong to take what does not belong to us. Another rule is that sharing is good. (But the giver does expect acknowledgement and thanks.) Both rules are grounded in physical reality: there is only one toy and we cannot both have it at exactly the same time. (See quantum theory for a more nuanced take on this.)

The present rules and protocols of plagiarism are an obsolete way of recognizing that it is still “wrong” to take something that does not belong to us — without gracious thanks — even when the taking looks more like sharing, and when what is taken can be simultaneously possessed by many. Non-physical products do still have authors in some sense, and intellectual property uses the physical metaphor with real meaning.

As a human society, Jaron Lanier reminds us, we need to figure out how to credit (and pay!) the multiple content creators whose blogs, tweets, and videos inform and entertain, and whose personal data and online behaviors allow social researchers to ply their crafts, social networkers to monetize their data, and advertisers to target and sell. Academics are not exempt from the honesty challenge, although bitcoin payments may not be the answer. Let this be an invitation to begin.

Discover Other Articles from Hybrid Pedagogy

Browse by Date of Publication

3 Responses

  1. Excellent post Susanne.

    I have been wondering about the challenges in education and how it relates or “matters” to what’s happening in the real world. I’m also wondering, especially in higher ed, what is bringing about these disruptions and how we respond to them.

    In this online space where micro-credentials, micro-payments, and open learning are the rage…how can bloated, way too expensive, unresponsive programs succeed?

    Finally, I’ve been pushed by your thinking about the future of learning, and value in open as opposed to premium/pay learning experiences. I’m starting up an experiment to see if I can learn more about this intersection.

    I think you may be right…and have been all along. 🙂

  2. Nancy Niemi

    Brava, Susanne! Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay about the ways in which the tectonic plates of open access to knowledge collide with intellectual property and with knowledge credentials. I keep thinking about this dilemma in terms of the future of higher education; it is not evident (to me, anyway) that just opening the doors, virtual as they now may be, and saying “y’all come” creates the conditions for excellent teaching and learning. How do we maintain what is best about new ways of sharing information, previously hidden behind ivy-covered walls, but at the same time acknowledge substantive, critical thinking and student learning? We know that just because something is broadcast does not mean everyone will learn.
    And, how can we be on the lookout for the new ways in which knowledge is becoming stratified?

    So many things to think about!

  3. I think you may find David Shields’s REALITY HUNGER an interesting read. Composed entirely of other people’s quotations with his own sprinkled in. But with no attribution. His publishers forced him to include a page in the back with minimum source info. He countered with a dotted line in the book’s gutter and encouraged the reader to cut it out.

Leave a Reply