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Is Plagiarism Really a Big Deal?

Notice how the brouhaha over Melania Trump cribbing from Michelle Obama's speech has already faded? I'd like to think it's because the educated citizenry has bigger issues to discuss--who we are, as a nation, and identifying our mutual goals, for example--but it's probably more related to the 24-hour news cycle and our "Look! Squirrel!" approach to political discourse.

The most thoughtful media pieces I read about ReplicateGate were from teachers. Often, they started with weary-but-outraged language about the thousands of term papers and essays the author had read, over years of teaching, and what would have happened had Melania Trump turned her speech in for a grade in their classroom. By far the best, most nuanced piece on plagiarism came from Paul L. Thomas: Plagiarism: Caught between Academia and the Real World. Thomas writes:

Here is the ugly truth we in the academy fail to teach students: In formal schooling (and most scholarship), plagiarism is punished harshly, especially when the plagiarist is a student; but in the real world, plagiarism occurs quite a bit, especially in politics, and with very few negative consequences--mostly because the plagiarists are powerful people.

The significant gap between the consequences for plagiarism by a student in school and for powerful people in the real world offers some important lessons for both academia and the public.

In K-12 and higher education, students are subjected to a high level of focus on and scrutiny about plagiarism. However, much of that is about detection and punishment--while too little time is spent directly teaching students about the ethics and technical aspects of choosing, using, and citing sources for original work.

In the case of Melania Trump's speech, the most egregious factors were not the 23-word verbatim passage, or the other lightly edited paragraphs full of down-home rhetoric. It was the irony and racism of Candidate Trump's wife choosing the words and ideas of a woman she says she admires--that woman being the very accomplished Michelle Obama--and the sheer gall of not vetting the speech for national TV. The Trump campaign got what they deserved: scorn on a global level.

There are, however, some powerful lessons for classroom teachers.

The first is that technology has made the concept of intellectual property something of a mystery and a challenge to students born into the Age of the Internet. How can someone own rights to a piece of media that everyone has read/seen/heard/sung/adapted and even laughed about? It's a pretty sophisticated concept, but one that can and should be simplified and taught to elementary students.

Intellectual property, copyright and fair use are poorly understood (even, evidently, by candidates for the highest office in the land and their phalanx of lawyers) and the explosion of digital publishing has made the line between outright misappropriation and creative modification blurrier. Another irony--in the age of Turnitin, even universities have to remind students that copying is, ahem, cheating.

It's difficult to teach young people the concepts of generating original ideas, combining multiple ideas into a coherent whole or rationale, making a point using the researched or time-tested ideas of others, or extracting those ideas and rewording them. It's even harder to get them to acknowledge that stealing other people's creative products is unethical.

I know. I've tried.

Shortly after Napster (and as many of its clones as could be rounded up) were taken down, I designed a multi-day lesson for my 7th and 8th grade students, to explore the issues of copyright infringement, intellectual property and what represents a fair market price for the arts and media products they were consuming.

The lesson sequence was set up as a "hearing" to discuss a faux case--a 14-year old boy who created a computer program to download music without paying for it. Since most of my students were familiar with Napster, it was easy to set up pro/con discussions around a series of student-generated questions: Should music be free? If musicians don't get paid, will they stop creating music? Is it fair to use someone else's music for your own purposes, without notifying them or paying them? What's a fair price to own a copy of a song? (Note: This was before iTunes, but my students settled on $1 as the price they'd be willing to pay, knowing part of it went to the artist and part to the production company.)

The thing I found interesting is that these relatively advantaged kids mostly felt that music--like air and water--was a gift from the universe and could not be owned. Furthermore, they assumed that artists were all rich and "didn't need the money." Intellectual property seemed silly to them--how could you police this--or identify whether an idea was truly original or pinched?

There was also an unsavory aspect to their thinking: why pay for something you want when you can get it for free? They understood what academic cheating was--not doing your own work--but seemed a little muzzy on getting something valuable at someone else's expense.

Still, given the amount of short-answer worksheet, end-of-chapter questions and vocabulary-definition assignments routinely given in traditional classrooms all over America, that amount to simple copying of answers, I think we have to ask ourselves if we're not too focused, as Paul Thomas says, on detection and punishment, not building and applying knowledge.

I taught a class, for one year, called "Enrichment," which was a kind of catch-all for middle school students who had fallen behind in their work and were in danger of failing a course.  All of the ESL kids in my school were in this class, which was supposed to offer them extra support in doing their assignments. There were two girls from Albania, cousins whose fathers, believing America was the land of opportunity, came to southeast Michigan to open a restaurant.

Did you know there are 36 characters in the Albanian alphabet? I certainly didn't. Neither of the girls had formal instruction in English before they immigrated, but both were picking up oral language fairly quickly.  Their reading and writing, however, lagged way behind. I spent most of my time with them helping interpret written questions and terms in their homework. Discussing what might be an appropriate answer from the textbook, then letting them copy it, seemed a reasonably productive strategy (given that there was nobody around to chat about the work in their native tongue).

I remember asking my daughter, a college student at the time:  Is it cheating if directly lifting passages helps the student understand the topic? She laughed. A whole lot of my classmates buy their research papers, Mom, she said. Off the internet, usually, but the rich ones hire people to write their papers so they won't be accused of plagiarism by their professors.

So much for original thinking. Need a paper--or a speech? Buy one! It's the American way.

Postscript: What happened to the two girls from Albania? One of their fathers slipped on grease in the restaurant, fell and broke his leg. The local hospital X-rayed the leg and put a temporary cast on it, directing him to "his orthopedic surgeon." Of course, he had no doctor or medical insurance. Another Albanian friend, who had settled in Boston, told them they could get free medical care there. They abandoned the restaurant, pulled all the children out of school and left, overnight.

I got a letter from one of the girls, however--maybe a month later. I had given her several of my daughter's early-reader chapter books (she was especially fond of Henry and Mudge), telling her she could keep them. She wrote to tell me she still had the books I gave her, and wanted to thank me. There's a lesson on character and culture in this story, somewhere.

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