In putting together my notes for the presentation I’m giving on “Ethics in the Digital Age” at the Laptop Institute in Memphis, TN, I ran across a posting from David Warlick. I had the pleasure of meeting David a couple of years ago when he was a keynote speaker at the Laptop Institute, and I have a great deal of professional respect for him. I agree with his observation regarding where to draw the line regarding cheating, plagiarism, and outsourcing. Part of the problem, as I see it, is the purpose in the research assignment:
A few years ago I had given a research project to a college level class. I warned them ahead of time of the consequences for plagiarism and had even spent a chunk of a class period defining plagiarism (from an ethical rather than just your run of the mill Webster’s dictionary version) as well as giving them examples of how I had caught individuals in the past who had attempted to plagiarize on the assignment. My basic definition: Plagiarism is knowingly taking someone else’s written work, research, art, or ideas without giving the original author his or her credit. Of course, those who were actually worried about it would ask: “What if I take it unknowingly”?
This is where the role of educator steps in.
Many times we just want to walk away and say “tough” or label them as a cheater. But this, as with many other situations, opens a “teachable moment” where the teacher is able to show the student how to better research and discover the true purpose of a research assignment. Now, if that purpose was simply to regurgitate information that has already been written in the past then the purpose of the assignment was to plagiarize (unless the assignment is nothing but quotes). If the purpose of the assignment was to help to student come to some realization or conclusion about how they stood on an issue or how they interpreted a text, then the teacher has actually assigned something enlightening.
For me, as a teacher, the answer to where we draw the line (as David Warlick proposed) begins both with our understanding of plagiarism but also rethinking our notion of research assignments with our students.
As I continue to put together my notes for my presentation in July, I’ll probably post a bit more on this…