Trip Gabriel, writing for the New York Times, recently penned (er, posted) an excellent article on the new face of plagiarism, driven by the digital age. Two telling anecdotes:
– “At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive – he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.”
For the past few decades, we have witnessed a struggle throughout the region to define and protect intellectual property rights (IPR), which a plagiarist of course violates. The struggle has included a redefinition of what’s appropriate in academia as well. But the match is one-sided; the global definition of IPR and plagiarism has coalesced around an essentially Western standard. In 2006, China’s government-controlled Xinhua news service indicated the degree to which the match is underway in China, with an article deriding the degree of plagiarism in the work of Chinese academicians, using the now-global meaning of the word plagiarism. The discussion remains robust in the media and on campus, but the direction is clear.
Therefore, the digital age has an especially interesting impact in East Asia. Students and faculty who are expected to recall/recite have gained a tectonic advantage in their scholarly work, because they suddenly have access not only to the greatest library ever created by humans, from their desks, but also to the greatest librarians in history, search engines that allow these students to find what they seek – no need for their own memory “links.” But in one way they’ve gained this remarkable power too late, because the standard has shifted. The global business and academic communities don’t accept the idea of “common knowledge” as expressed by the student in the passage above and understood in the Confucian exam system. The “I” in IP also means “individual.” Text other than your own must be cited if used.
Despite having largely set the current global standard for plagiarism, the West’s own plagiarism history has perhaps been no better, just better hidden. Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” But the point of Gabriel’s article is that the standards of plagiarism seem to be shifting among students in the United States. The student described in the second passage above didn’t think hiding sources was even necessary – both students thought they were using “common knowledge.” In other words, as China is evolving toward a globalized understanding of IP and plagiarism, the students cited in Gabriel’s article have reverted to a pre-modern conception of the latter at least.
I see these phenomena as growing pains. Universities will continue to seek out and punish plagiarism, using the “text other than your own must be cited if used” standard. Software such as Turnitin and its Chinese analog is already supporting faculty and administrators in checking whether student submissions have crossed Einstein’s line dividing creative work from mere copying. However, Professor Chen Baizhu, academic director of a joint-venture EMBA program in Shanghai, suggests that the matter is always a moving target – that gray areas will always exist, and will shape-shift as time goes by. He suggests that software and other tools can only support, not replace, faculty, who must remain responsible for judgment calls, and that the faculty must be supported by their institutions on suitably severe penalties, to set strong examples, because some plagiarism will always escape notice. The institutions must make the risk/reward ratio for plagiarism entirely unattractive.
Full disclosure: I have obviously relied heavily on the internet to draft this column. I could not have done anywhere near as much synthesis even 15 years ago. I stand on the shoulders of digital as well as intellectual giants (hat tip to Bernard of Chartres).
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.