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John Palfrey: Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age?

John Palfrey, co-director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is the co-author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (2008). In this PIL interview, John discusses the changing nature of plagiarism, policy implications, and the rise of the "copy and paste culture" on campuses. (Interview posted: September 1, 2010)

John Palfrey thrives on tackling some of the most pressing issues of the digital age: How are digital natives re-defining identify and john palfreyprivacy—and to what end? How will policies be legislated to deter digital piracy, yet foster and preserve creativity in the Internet 2.0 era? How do educators teach students to sift fact from fiction in a time of information proliferation and plain old overload?

John is the Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a Professor of Law, and Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School.

He is also co-author (with Urs Gasser) of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (Basic Books, 2008), a landmark sociological study of today's early adults, who were born and raised in a wired world.

The authors' conclusion? "Digital natives are extraordinarily sophisticated and strangely narrow."

We interviewed John in late August, right before another school year started. We shared some of PIL's findings about how early adults find, process, and use information. In particular, we asked John about the changing nature of plagiarism, policy implications, and the rise of the "copy and paste culture" on campuses in the digital age.

PIL: How have the concept and students' understanding of plagiarism changed with the onset of the Internet? Are digital natives somehow more prone to plagiarize than the students who came before them?

John: First, thanks so much for including me in this fun series. I'm honored to be asked to comment on these important topics.

One of the big mistakes that it's easy to make is to think "this time, it's different" and then fail to look carefully into what's really changed and what's ultimately the same. To be sure, today's media environment is vastly different than it was a few hundred years ago. Today's media environment is meaningfully different than it was a few decades ago.

But something like the concept of plagiarism has not changed. It's a concept that has been around for hundreds of years. It means to use someone else's work and to pass it off as one's own. That's just as true today, in a primarily digitally-mediated environment, as it was for students of bygone eras. We can and should teach it from first principles.

Students who have grown up with the Web have become accustomed to having more information available to them, with less effort, than their parents and grandparents did. In our research for the book Born Digital, we talked primarily to students who were born after 1980; who have access to Internet services; and who have relatively strong digital media skills. In our research and in the research of others, it is fair to say that there is a certain degree of confusion about what constitutes plagiarism in a digital context and how plagiarism relates to copyright violations, with which it is often confused.

There are some complicated cases that they have to think through with care. But I don't think that youth today are somehow more prone to plagiarism than their parents and grandparents, no, just as I don't think they are somehow "dumber" or less interested in reading or many of the other myths about youth in a digital era.

PIL: At Project Information Literacy, we have just completed a study that analyzed the handouts that instructors distributed to students for research assignments (191 handouts from 25 U.S. college and university campuses). Few of the handouts we analyzed—18%—defined plagiarism, discussed it as a form of academic fraud, and/or explained ways of avoiding it. Of the few handouts that did address plagiarism—details were cursory, amounting to references to a campus honor code and/or admonishing students about plagiarism and putting them on notice they would fail either the assignment or the course, if caught plagiarizing.

While acknowledging that professors may reach out to students in different ways about plagiarism (e.g., ancillary handouts, lectures, office hours), we still see evidence of a serious gap. A majority of students we have interviewed live in fear that they will be accused of plagiarism—an academic crime they have told us they really do not fully understand. Instructors we interviewed admitted many of their students know very little about the finer details of plagiarism, and some have not grasped the bigger issues either. What's a student to do? What's an educator to do? Where (and with whom) does the confusion begin about what plagiarism means in the digital age? Is there anything that can be done, or should be done, in academic policy with regard to plagiarism?

John: First off, you and your team are to be commended for extraordinary work. I'm not just saying that because you're interviewing me, either. The PIL studies are beautifully done and extremely instructive.

Plagiarism is a tricky topic for educators to handle with their students. It's not the core topic of most courses; it's not fun; and it sounds school-marmish to bring it up. I prefer not to bring it up in my own teaching, so I quite understand the reluctance of teachers in your sample to do so.

There's a strong need, though, to do just what you imply in your question: we need to find ways to give students a finer-grained understanding of what plagiarism means in the information context in which they are growing up. My view is that we start with first principles. It's wrong to take the work of someone else and pass it off as your own, whether in the academic context or otherwise. In the academic context, we consider it to be, as you say, an academic crime for which a student may be expelled from most schools. It makes no difference, from my perspective, that the material passed off is or was in a digital format rather than an analog format. The fact that it's plagiarism is the same.

One area where some confusion seeps in has to with remixing content. When a student takes a snippet of a song, a video, an image, or text on the Web and works it into a piece of criticism that is turned in for a school assignment, there's a good chance that what they've done is completely permissible – and which we want to encourage. The remixing of content, with proper attribution and in keeping with the fair use principle under copyright, is something that we ought to encourage and to celebrate. We do need to help students understand the line between riffing off and ripping off the work of others. We riff off of one another all the time in academic work; we must all avoid ripping one another off. Attribution of the work of someone else goes a long way, as does taking no more of the original work than is needed for the purpose of the commentary, and so forth. These are skills that we should find ways to teach. I think they are best taught in the context of active projects where students have their hands dirty with materials, whether digital or not.

PIL: Time and time again, you've stressed that one of the critical skills of the 21st century is mastering how to sort and evaluate information—especially determining the credibility of sources. In Project Information Literacy's recent student survey (8,300 students from 25 U.S. campuses), we asked respondents how they evaluated the information quality of course-related research materials and information they used in their everyday lives. We were intrigued by what we found: Students in the sample reported they evaluated print and Web sources frequently and fairly thoroughly, judging the currency, information design, authority, and their familiarity with materials. Respondents also reported frequently turning to others—instructors, classmates, friends/family—for help with evaluating materials. These findings suggest students are practicing, maybe even mastering, at least to some extent, evaluation—the critical skill of the 21st century. Could many young adults be sorting and evaluating information and putting this critical skills into practice, more so than some (not all) educators and librarians may be giving them credit for?

John: I've been seeing the same thing you've seen in our research with young people. Many of them, those who have been given supportive environments for computing and are learning great analytical skills, are finding ways to thrive in the new, more complex digital information environment. There's a lot to like about what we are seeing in terms of young people's skills in sorting credible from less credible information. Many of them are adept at reading the clues that they find online, turning to friends and mentors to help, and participating in the creation and sharing of new, critical skills. It is a mistake to "fear what's happening to kids these days" in terms of their ability to learn and to research.

At the same time, it's crucial to note that not all students are learning these skills and sharing them with their friends. There's been great work, especially by our colleague at Northwestern University, Eszter Hargittai, about the participation gap: the extent to which some students are less skilled at using digital tools and sorting digital information than others. This is where the term "digital natives" can be misleading. It's not the case that all kids are born with an intuition for how to use these tools and how to sort through online information. Kids struggle, just as adults do, to learn these things. Parents, teachers, librarians, friends and many other adults need to play a role in scaffolding a learning environment for all young people, whether in America or abroad, whether in rich environments or poor. Nobody knows how to do this on their own, just naturally. And some kids need much more help than others. I'm worried about a growing divide of this sort over time if we don't track this issue as a policy problem over time.

Bottom line: we need to believe in our youth, credit them for what they're doing, help them to share great practices, and be sure we're teaching digital literacy skills – ultimately, the 21st century skills they will need to succeed in jobs and in life generally – to all our students.

PIL: In a recent essay you authored for a faculty workshop at Harvard Law School (HLS)[1], you wrote "in addition to traditional pools of knowledge (such as books, journals, and case studies), librarians should help our students figure out how to manage the rivers of digital information that they encounter every day...right now librarians are focused on the pools." Do you think this is the case with libraries, elsewhere, too? In general, should librarians (not just at HLS) implement programs and services to do this—that is, to help students navigate the rivers of digital information?

John: It's important to realize that great information doesn't just come between the covers of a bound volume issued by a venerable publisher. Often, it does, and it's wonderful in that format. But often, too, the learning and the wisdom and even the facts that students are seeking comes in other formats that work quite differently.

The first step is for those of us who are teachers and librarians to practice this same discipline on our own. I think we need to be in the business of using these new rivers of information, adding to them, sharing what we know, and coding – developing, in the sense of writing computer code – new ones that work even better. There's so much that we know about in libraries and in communities that we are not sharing with other people. The amount of metadata – data about the data – that we have and don't make use of is staggering. (My colleagues in the Library Lab at Harvard Law School are working on a beta application of this sort, online here that makes this point generally.) And then we should be using and imparting these skills at all the touchpoints we have with students, whether in research consultations, in research classes, or in ordinary classes where we are helping students do research in the context of another topic.

PIL: Let' s shift gears, John. What do you see as the three most important competencies that educators and librarians should be teaching today's students about information seeking in the digital age? Beyond evaluation, what other critical skills should be taught about developing an information-seeking strategy, ethically using sources, and synthesizing results—beginning in K-12 and continuing through college and say, even in graduate or, in your case, law school?

John: The first thing everyone should do is to read the PIL studies as they come out. Seriously: we need to monitor exactly what you and others in the research community are finding out as the news breaks and being especially sensitive to what's enduring about what you are learning. There are many clues in your data that point to the answer to this fifth question you've posed, and it will likely change over time. We need to avoid falling prey to a static understanding of youth practice in this area, while also avoiding the temptation to change our policies as their practices change rapidly. That's why the focus on stable principles and core skills in a changing context is so crucial.

The three most important competencies is a hard one. I take it that you've carved out evaluation, which is essential. First, I want students to learn more about creativity and what they can and should do with information, whether or not it is held in copyright by someone else. How can they use and re-use they extraordinary wealth of information that they are blessed to have access too? Second, I hope that they will learn the skills to manage the vast amount of information they are confronted with. That includes knowing where to look, how to be efficient, how to stay on top of great sources. But it also means how to switch off periodically; how to run outside to kick a soccer ball; how to listen to music with friends with nothing else going on; or to have a quiet, un-digitally-mediated talk with someone they love without twitching anxiously and wondering where the iPhone went.

And third, I think it's crucial that they continue to learn to think independently for themselves. It would be a shame if the provision of more information to more people led to less thinking. The fact that one can use an online calculator to tabulate sums quickly from anywhere (or figure out a mortgage payment on that cute apartment you see across the street) doesn't mean that it's not a good idea to be able to add those same sums in one's head. We should be able to build more, in a digital age, on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us – and give credit where credit is due along the way in an ethical manner.

[1] See "Digital Natives Go to Law School," John Palfrey, Harvard Law School Faculty Workshop, March 1, 2010, pg. 26 [accessed August 10, 2010].

John Palfrey is the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library Resources at Harvard Law School (HLS). John has been the director of the school's library and co-chair of the IT committee. John's research and teaching focus is on Internet law, intellectual property, and the potential of new technologies to strengthen democracies locally and around the world.

He is the co-author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (Basic Books, 2008) and Access Denied: The Practice and Politics of Global Internet Filtering (MIT Press, 2008).

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of finding and using information and conducting research in the digital age.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington's Information School and supported with contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Smart Talks are open-access; no permission for its use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source be cited as: Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 3, John Palfrey, "Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age?" September 1, 2010.