Plagiarism in the Internet age

The New York Times reports on how getting information from the Internet has changed students’ perceptions about plagiarism:

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

Anthropologist Susan D. Blum studied students at the University of Notre Dame and came to this conclusion regarding attitudes toward authorship:

She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.

If so, this is an interesting change. It suggests the concept of individualism is changing from one where a person develops unique ideas to one where individuals are creative with existing material.

Perhaps this generation tends to think information on the Internet (and other creative material) is common knowledge. One traditional rule about avoiding plagiarism has to do with common knowledge; if it is widely known, then no citation is needed. What is being confused then is the ease in which the information can be obtained versus whether it has an author. It is true that it is often easy to do an Internet search and find something out. That does not mean that the information is known to all – easy access does not equal common knowledge.

It seems like the best course would be for students to cite all external sources, even if a student thinks it is common knowledge.