Modern Plagiarism

By Tricia Bertram Gallant

My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Susan D. Blum. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009.

If pressed, many faculty members would cite cheating and plagiarism as the primary drain on their desire to teach. I have seen faculty reactions range from personal hurt (“why would he cheat me?”) to empathy (“poor kid, she must be having a difficult time”), and from apathy (“let them cheat”) to moral outrage (“I want the kid punished to the fullest extent possible!”). But the majority of faculty simply want answers—why students cheat, how cheating can be stopped, and how to react to cheating when it does happen.

To find those answers, faculty may be tempted to turn to Susan Blum’s My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. In this new volume, Blum suggests to faculty that their “moral panic” over student plagiarism is misguided, because the “digital revolution” has created a new world in which authorship is ambiguous and originality improbable. Blum suggests that instead of panicking, faculty should let go of the idea that “one’s words and ideas can be differentiated from another’s and must be traced” and then find ways to adapt to the new digital culture in which students are already living.

Many before Blum have written about the cultural conflicts between students and the academy as well as the implications of the ambiguity of authorship in the digital age. I myself argued, in Academic Integrity in the Twenty-first Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative, that the academy needs to consider that students may not view information and knowledge in the same way that we faculty do. I agree with Blum that “moral panic” is not a helpful response to plagiarism, but neither is the wholesale adoption of the digital culture—at least, not as long as we have a knowledge-based economy, one in which people and organizations make money from words and ideas.

However, Blum is correct that the cultural divide between students and the academy obligates us to teach students about the values and assumptions underlying the practices of citation and attribution. I have found it helpful to reframe the issue for students from one in which they are expected to cite the author who originally composed the words or published the idea (which can be difficult to determine in the digital age) to one in which they are expected to cite the source from which they took the idea or words for use in their own papers. In other words, attribution is not about tracking down the originators but about acknowledging or “giving a shout out” to those who have shaped our thinking—it is a sign of respect. I also teach students that attribution is about strengthening one’s own arguments and validating one’s own ideas, as well as allowing readers to trace the history of the author’s ideas so that readers can travel that same path if they choose. And, last, I tell students that attribution is critical in their assignments because without it, faculty evaluations are not valid assessments of a student’s knowledge and ability to think and write critically. My Word! would be more useful for faculty if Blum had provided such practical suggestions for bridging the cultural divide.

The most valuable portion of Blum’s book is her discussion of how the “surge in the celebration of performance” within the educational system has exacerbated student willingness to do whatever it takes in order to be perceived as performing well. This “celebration of performance” or focus on external rewards (grades, awards, accolades, college admission) has diminished the value of “authentic” education and the internal rewards (learning, selfimprovement) of schooling. This phenomenon is nowhere more visible than at places like the University of California, San Diego, my own institution, where the mean grade point average of entering first-year students is 4.1 or, in other words, “better than perfect” (do I attribute this phrase to Blum when I have been saying it on my campus for years?). These “better than perfect” students are ill prepared to meet the intellectual and scholarly demands of higher education or to cope with the inevitable disappointment of failing, perhaps for the first time in their academic lives.

Thus, it is not surprising that such students candidly say that cheating and plagiarism are “necessary means to a necessary end.” To these students, cheating and plagiarism are often strategic choices, not ignorant mistakes caused by cultural gaps between a digital generation and the academic establishment. Students tell me that they obscure their sources to receive a higher grade than they would otherwise. If we listen carefully to students and read between the lines in Blum’s book, we will hear that students do understand that the academy values authorship, originality, and academic honesty, but sometimes their desire to be seen as performing well entices them to act in ways that align with different values. As Blum notes, there is “no magic bullet” to the problem of student cheating and plagiarism, but we could make much progress by strategically socializing students into the academic culture, implementing rewards for performing well with integrity, and consistently reporting and sanctioning students who choose dishonest means to meet selfish ends.

My Word! usefully reminds faculty that laments about the lack of morality among “students today” might not serve us well in our quest to reduce cheating and plagiarism. Such laments obscure the fact that families, institutions, and society have shaped students’ views of education and their devaluing of ethical conduct and legitimate academic practices. Blum’s book also offers an easy-to-read refresher for those interested in already widely covered topics of the digital age and plagiarism. However, those who are looking for concrete suggestions for dealing with student cheating and plagiarism may be left unsatisfied, as there are few suggestions provided in her final chapter that have not been articulated elsewhere. For more practical guides on dealing with cheating and plagiarism, I suggest that instructors consider volumes such as Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age, a 2008 volume edited by Caroline Eisner and Martha Vicinus, and Bernard E. Whitley and Patricia Keith-Spiegel’s 2002 book, Academic Dishonesty: An Educator’s Guide.

Tricia Bertram Gallant is academic integrity coordinator for the University of California, San Diego. She is coauthor (with Stephen Davis and Patrick Drinan) of the forthcoming book Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do.