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