If rules about plagiarism are becoming fuzzy, and if many uses of the Internet seem to contradict academic understandings of intellectual property, perhaps one place to start would be to spend more, rather than less, time working with the Internet and talking about the role of technology in honest, interesting scholarship.
It also seems important, given the level of shared confusion among all members of the academic community over what constitutes plagiarism, to recognize that plagiarism does not (necessarily) equal cheating. In fact, many forms of plagiarism seem to be more an indicator of learning waiting to happen than an attempt at fraud.
Internet technology provides an opportunity to more closely examine a practice that Rebecca Moore Howard has termed "patchwriting." This practice of copying, or cutting-and-pasting, small amounts of text from the Internet (or elsewhere) and claiming it for one's own is often, at worst, just a misunderstanding on the writer's part of the conventions associated with using others' ideas. At best, it's often "a move toward membership in a discourse community, a means of learning unfamiliar language and ideas," Howard explains. "Far from indicating a lack of respect for a source text," she continues, "...patchwriting is a gesture of reverence" (Howard, Standing, 7).
Howard suggests teaching with patchwriting in mind. For example, to help writers become at once more cognizant of how such practices are often viewed in academic culture, and also to help them practice the process of interpreting and summarizing difficult material, she'll conduct a class session in which the class summarizes particularly difficult passages together (Howard, Standing, 141-145).
Taking this a step further, she even suggests that writers new to the discourse of their disciplines might benefit from deliberatepatchwriting -- albeit on a temporary basis -- in order to pay attention to the language and patterns those writers use and to ways those practices might influence their own writing (Howard, Standing, 145-149).
And finally, Howard urges writers to spend time on the context in which notions of plagiarism, and patchwriting as plagiarism, developed and are sustained. Examining the theories out of which these issues developed, she explains, can "acquaint students with the history of and current theoretical work in authorship, so that they come to realize that the autonomous, originary, proprietary, moral author is not a foundational fact, but a cultural arbitrary, one that still governs the expectations for their own writing but that is nevertheless ceaselessly undergoing change" (Howard, Standing, 151). In doing so, a writer will not only come to understand what is acceptable and what is not, and will not only learn how to use their sources accordingly, but will better understand what they are able to do as authors, thereby gaining greater facility with expressing their own ideas.
Examples for practice and critique
Because the Internet offers open exchange of information, it's not difficult to think of other ways in which writers could use its resources while simultaneously examining its role in academic scholarship. It provides a wealth of examples, for example:
- Critiquing web sites can help groups of writers come to consensus about what good writing and good scholarship is.
- Examples can also be chosen for their ability to helphone critical thinking skills (what constitutes well thought-out argument? what holes can be poked in an argument that seems sound on the surface? how would a comparison of two different perspectives raise additional questions?).
- And of course, it's not difficult to find opportunities on the web to discuss evaluating sources.
All of these practices can help think about not only web resources but also about broader issues of finding, evaluating, synthesizing, and presenting one's own work in ways that are appreciated by the broader academic community.
Audiences and colleagues
The Internet not only offers writers countless sources that we can go out and get, but a (theoretically) vast audience for our own work. Web pages that writers might produce are one way of accessing this audience. But listservs, chat rooms, news groups, discussion boards, and other communications opportunities that the Internet provides can put us in touch with others who share our interests and who can help us develop our thinking. By engaging consciously in this process, it's also possible to think more deeply about how knowledge is formed through the exchange of ideas.