When Maja called to ask me to do my copyright & plagiarism lecture again this term I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to do differently from last year. "Oh, no, no -- it was perfect. But just one thing. You said that it was important for them to build their work on a mix of quotation and paraphrase, and I ended up with reams and reams of cut and paste quotes. I want them to put it in their own words, so don't talk about quoting."
I've been doing guest lectures on copyright for many years now, but it's just in the last few that I've been asked to incorporate plagiarism as well. Faculty concerns about plagiarism have skyrocketed. It is so easy to do. But there's a deeper problem as well -- throughout the educational system we do a lousy job of explaining the concepts to students. Most of them manage to get through their entire high school and undergraduate careers without anyone ever systematically explaining copyright, plagiarism and how they interrelate. They know that plagiarism and copyright infringement are bad -- but they have only the fuzziest of notions as to what that really consists of.
This is reinforced every time I do one of these lectures. Typically I'm speaking to relatively small groups of upper division students (Maja's group this year was comprised of seven students in the doctoral program in Maternal and Child Health), and it is clear from their questions, comments, and body language that this is the first time that anyone has gone through these concepts with them in depth. And they are typically horrified as they realize that many of the practices that they've routinely indulged in fall on the wrong side of the line.
The two most common misconceptions: If I use something and it's for educational purposes and I give a citation for it, I'm protected from copyright violation; and, if I put it into my own words it's not plagiarism and I don't have to provide a citation. The most troublesome concept to grasp: How do I know when something is "common knowledge" and I don't have to provide documentation? "When in doubt," I tell them, "check with your persnickety professor." She smiles.
Granted, this isn't easy stuff. And a one hour session with me is not enough to give anybody a solid grounding; but by the time the students have gotten to where these folks are, that's about all the time that can be spared. In this class, they'll probably come out okay; I know from Maja's syllabus that she'll focus as much on research skills and the appropriate way to put together a research paper as she will on the content of the course (adolescent sexuality); but I also know that many professors don't do that. (I'm still astonished at the incident a few years ago where an NLM-funded post-doc added my name as author to an article he submitted to a journal simply because I was on one of his advisory committees. He thought it was a nice gesture. Nobody had ever explained appropriate standards of authorship to him.)
Lynn and I talked about it at dinner the other night, after I'd done the lecture. We both learned basic research & documentation skills in high school (she was on Guam and I was in smalltown Wisconsin). Maybe it wasn't widespread then either and we were just fortunate in our teachers. In any event, it sure isn't happening now. We are doing a grave disservice in sending people through the educational system without ever training them in the basic rules and standards for properly making use of the intellectual and creative work of others.