The new plagiarism, or reward me for the cut-n-paste

March 23, 2007 at 1:45 pm 5 comments

Writing research reports has never been easier.  With the web, Wikipedia, and myriad other resources, it’s hard not to find content.  Putting aside the information literacy concerns of making-sure-the-content-is-legitimate I wonder about our approach toward re-using content.  Thinking about this for a while, I came across an interesting discussion going on at Techdirt.

Then my son had this information on the directions for an assignment:

“IMPORTANT: The text needs to sound like you wrote it; it should be in your words.  Reword any text that you copy for your slides.  Do NOT just copy and past [sic] someone else’s text.”

This statement bothers me.  “Needs to sound…reword any text that you copy…” tells the kids to do a bunch of busy work to mess up the content they’ve found in their research.  In other words this statement might read:

“IMPORTANT: Search diligently for an accurate and factual and well-written source, then spend an evening dumbing it down, screwing up the grammar, destroying the context, and erasing the creative work that went into the polished version….and make it your own.  So copy it but make sure your version is nowhere as good as the one you find.”

Why do we, and for how much longer, will anyone put up with this?  Why waste time improving on perfection?  If you find a good source, use it.  Now, make sure you give credit, and avoid the plagiarism issue, but don’t waste your time fixing what ain’t broke.

In fact, students might be rewarded for finding the BEST SOURCE.  In other words, reward students for improving their searching skills, their information literacy skills, and improving their abilities for weeding out the BS and finding the good sources.  For cutting and pasting!.  Students who end up with poorly sourced, poorly written, end-products, especially if written in their own words, would get the low grades. 

Cut-n-paste is often thought of as the lazy approach.  But I’d argue that just typing out your own thoughts without doing a full-blown search and analysis is the lazy approach.

Vinge’s book Rainbows End describes what the schools of the future might look like.  Collaboration and aggregation, search and analysis, these are king.  However, in the book the teacher comments: “But, in the end we must also know something about something….Don’t let those skills die.  Use them.  Improve on them.  You can do it with a special form of preanalysis that I call ’study’…..Find out what makes you different and better…..And once you do, you’ll be able to contribute answers to others and others will be willing to contribute back to you.  In short, synthetic serendipity doesn’t just happen.  By golly, you must create it.”

So I acknowledge that while this cut-n-paste approach might be important to foster, teaching students about actually creating content is important too.  There might be many levels of content creation, and reuse:

Synthesis – inspiration, new thoughts, original content (Very Rare)

Aggregation+synthesis – Standing on the shoulders of giants, compilation of early work leads to unexpected results, or applying past insights in another context leads to breakthroughs. (Rare)

Aggregation+Expansion – Aggregation leads to knowledge base that fosters further insight (common)

Expansion – extending/elaborating someone else’s thoughts with your own, extrapolation/interpolation, filling in holes. (Common)

Aggregation – compilation of other’s thoughts into one encompassing entity. Literature review.  (Common)


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, information literacy.

Ideaviruses and Personal Development KM made simple

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Idetrorce  |  December 15, 2007 at 8:47 am

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  • 2. futhermet  |  December 15, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    Hello Idetroce – What don’t you agree with?

  • […] reward me for the cut and paste!  Don’t require kids to dumb down information to make it sound like their own […]

  • 4. Richard  |  May 30, 2008 at 9:50 am

    That’s a really interesting issue.

    The requirement to write an essay on a subject is a simple process of collating relavant information, piecing it together, and then rewording it to give it a consistent voice.

    The point is that in doing that process, the child has likely taken in and understood the subject, as essays are largely weighted (marks wise) on presenting an argument, the conclusion and analysis of the information.

    If a child can draw lots of sources together, then they have gathered the ingredients for the actual work – if they are able to draw an intelligent conclusion or build a reasoned and valid argument using that information, then they have achieved a key skill.

    There is a lot of emphasis on turning a source into a piece of original material though – in which I agree with you… makes no difference if they copy & paste it, or re-write it. It’s the same information.

    It would be much better to insert sourced information with analysis to support an the student’s point of view, as you said with proper reference to the originator in the appendix.

  • […] we then effectively reuse the hours of work it took to put the original presentation together.  [Reward me for the cut-n-paste: why do we tell students to “put it in their own […]


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