[Air-l] RE: Plagiarism and Napster

Michael Gurstein mgurst at vcn.bc.ca
Sat Mar 23 11:57:11 PST 2002

The discussion of "Plagiarism" is of course, the debate around Napster
brought home to us academics.

Need I say to Internet researchers that the Internet combined with digital
technologies brought about the capacity for the more or less effortless,
costless, (and with more or less perfect verisimilitude), reproduction and
universal distribution of information encoded as data--texts being no less
subject to such opportunities as is music or video or any other digitally
encodable information form.

But this is mechanics, and unfortunately most of the discussion concerning
"plagiarism" in academia in general (and on this list) seems to be on the
level of mechnanics.

However, doesn't all this discussion about various mechanical ways of
capturing the plargiarizing miscreants say some interesting things about the
state of academe where:
	* student assessment is so ritualized and depersonalized that digitally
encoded performances (e.g. student essays/reports) can be substituted one
for the other (apparently seamlessly) subject only to mechanical (policing)
	* essay topics are of such timelessness that they allow for such
subtitution/insertion across time and space
	* assessments are of student presentation/re-presentation of infinitely
reproducible (and in a digital age) completely depersonalized "information"
rather than the rather more context (and individual) specific "knowledge".

Surely what is important is that students can construct a useful argument,
judiciously select and cogently deploy information from the infinite
information warehouse on the Net (or elsewhere) rather than find this or
that clever way of restating (in their own words) whatever is the content of
the subject they are discussing.

I teach something called "Knowledge Management" to graduate IS and
Management students and among the tenets of KM is that knowledge is
collaborative, it grows with use, and that it derives much of its
meaning/value from its context.

Personally (and here I am speaking completely for myself and not for my
Faculty or University), I am less concerned with "plagiarism", understood as
the simple reproduction of the words of others than I am with how well these
words fit within the context of the matter (essay, exercise, etc.) under
review and whether there is an implicit or explicit claim that the words are
those of the author e.g. whether there is a referencing of included text.

My assumption is that given the availability of Google and the Net, the
inclusion of the text of others (where suitably referenced) is not only
inevitable, but desireable--not much that students can usefully say about a
lot of topics without it.  In fact, I see a direct link between the caliber
of responses from those students who understand how to use the Net/Google
effectively to accumulate their information and construct their answer as
knowledge, as compared to those students who don't make such use.

In the medium or longer term there would appear to be no technical means for
controlling the infinite reproduction and distribution of digitally encoded
music and image (read video) at least this side of a more or less total
breakdown of the Net/personal computing as we currently know it (see the
discussion around Hollywood's Internet anti-piracy proposals and the
TechLords responses re: the Hollings bill); so I see no way of controlling
"plagiarism" even in the short run, short of devoting vast resources of
time, money and energy to this unproductive end and turning us all into
Junior detectives/policemen in the process.

Just as for the "Napster" issues IMHO the time and resources spent on
chasing plagiarists (read Napster/Freenet/Morpheus etc.etc. pirates) would
be better spent figuring out how this new medium changes the nature of the
messages it is carrying and their larger cultural/institutional contexts and
adapting our teaching activities and approaches (and business models) to
these new opportunities.

Mike Gurstein

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