Is “Cut/Pasting” from a Website into a Graded Online Course Wiki Presentation, Plagiarism?

If you are like me, your response to this question is probably, “duh … yea … everybody knows that’s plagiarism”. I thought so, too, until four students in an eight week course were ousted by one of their peers for posting a verbatim, cut/paste-from-a-website response to an assignment into the course wiki without a citation. Clearly, everyone doesn’t know that’s plagiarism. Had it been one or maybe two students, I might be more likely to think they knew better and were just taking the path of least resistance to completing the assignment. However, four students really made me wonder, what would make a student paying private school tuition, think that was OK? So, I asked them. Their varying versions of “just sharing information”, support the need for instructors to consider a teaching approach when addressing violations of plagiarism.

Accusing a learner of plagiarism is as insulting and degrading as calling an African American person the “N-word”. The connotation of the word plagiarism, suggests stealing, which is punishable in the states by a fine, imprisonment, or both. Plagiarism is an attack on a learner’s character, and if convicted, can result in the expulsion of the learner from a university. It’s the connotation of the word that makes it difficult to address with students, especially when the learner denies that plagiarism took place.

The four learners in the situation previously described, had one common response, when approached about the “matching” content. They all felt it was alright to “cut/paste” from a website because they were “just sharing information”. Is the “participatory culture” of today and the popular practice of “remixing” works that are not one’s own, “mudding the waters” of plagiarism as it is now defined? For example, Weird Al Yankovic sold many albums and won several music awards for his parodies on “pop culture”. How is a student to know the circumstances under which it is permissible to use the music of another artist in this way? Similarly, how do learners differentiate between plagiarism and “just sharing information”. In the case of my four students, I chose to assume no malicious intent. I understand that this may not be an appropriate assumption for many violations of plagiarism. However, in the remixing, participatory culture of today’s learners, discussions of copyright, the creative commons license, or fair use guidelines may need to be more visible. Perhaps learners could use a refresher course in the meanings of summarizing, paraphrasing, quoting, and citing sources. Instructors who teach online may want to take a proactive approach to minimizing plagiarism by initiating an ungraded discussion forum where students can receive information and post questions before a violation has occurred.

BTW, I trust my scholarly colleagues won’t mind the many “authoritative” references to Wikipedia :-)