vendredi 21 mai 2010

The copy and paste mentality

When I taught at the super-selective HEC (Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales), a French grande école that trains many of France's future business elites and captains of industry, I often had my students keeps a journal in English so they would get writing practice. I told them they could write on any subject whatsoever, but sometimes suggested topics for open-ended essays.

I would collect the journals a couple of times during the term and read/grade them. To my surprise, one student had copied text from Time magazine word for word, passing it off as his own reflections about the problem of immigration in France (a topic I had given). I did not read Time magazine regularly, but just happened to have read this very article. I immediately recognized the words, not to mention the vast improvement in this student's written English. From upper intermediate to publishable in one fell swoop!

When I confronted the student, he denied having copied the text. So I showed him the original. He did not seem too embarrassed and eventually explained to me that he needed a good grade in my class to get an internship his dad had arranged for him in New York the following summer. The end justified the means, in his mind at least.

This happened in the mid-80's, before the ubiquity of the Internet. Today, it is so easy to copy and paste and the amount of material available for the taking is so vast that plagiarism has become a major problem. Le Monde has published an interesting article on the subject (this post's title links to it). Apparently, plagiarism detection software has been developed and a string of more than six identical words with an existing published document gets picked up and flagged.

This paragraph caught my attention:

Mais pour Hélène Maurel-Indart, si le plagiat prend de l'ampleur, ce n'est pas seulement à cause d'Internet. "Bien sûr, avec les ordinateurs, il y a la banalisation du geste copier-coller." Un clic suffit, plus besoin de recopier manuellement des pages d'ouvrage. "Mais il y a également l'augmentation du nombre d'entrées en master, avec des étudiants qui ne sont pas toujours capables de valoriser leurs informations."

But for Hélène Maurel-Indart, the Internet is not the only reason plagiarism is becoming more widespread. "Obviously, with computers copy-and-paste has become a banal gesture." It just takes one click; manually recopying the pages of the work is no longer necessary. "But there are also more students pursuing master's degrees, and some of them are not always able to valorize their information."

That is the crux of the problem, I think. With the Internet, one quickly realizes that one's thoughts on a given work or author or movement or moment in history or sociological phenomenon or whatever have probably been expressed by someone else already. Blissful ignorance of one's precursors is no longer an option. The challenge lies in acknowledging them and building on what they have already written. But what if what they have already written tallies with what you think? Just agreeing is so lame. Just going out and finding the words of others who agree or disagree is easy. The world of scholarship has not yet figured out how to deal with the copy-and-paste mindset. Judging from my experience at the University of Washington, higher education functions pretty much the same way it did 30 years ago. The anxiety of influence may have intensified, that's all.