Plagiarism or Paraphrasing: Does it Matter Anymore?

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Last week's post about how the Internet affects plagiarism brought up some interesting points of discussion.

Readers are parsing the difference between copying information verbatim without citing the source, and paraphrasing information gleaned from sources like Wikipedia.

One reader writes:

As a graduate student and researcher, 80% of what I do is not expressing original thoughts, but accurately understanding, coherently organizing, and properly attributing other people's thoughts. I realize TurnItIn focuses on essays and term papers, not research, but perhaps what we really need is better education on how to attribute and use sources.

Another reader takes a step back and frames the conversation in terms of information ownership:

We are entering an age where ownership of information is becoming increasingly shared or indeterminate. Therefore, it's time to re-think the concept of plagiarism.

This young generation of thinkers sees intellectual property very differently than my older generation does. I believe we are not far from an era where most information is considered public property and one's intellectual value is measured by what one can do with information rather than by how much one knows. In this new world, plagiarism will become irrelevant. Of course, those who reject my hypothesis can always use technological solutions to address this fundamentally technological problem. Personally, I'd rather cultivate a paradigm shift in my own thinking about what I truly value in student writing. Changing my old attitudes is preferable to wrestling with out-dated notions of plagiarism that are doomed to become irrelevant by the middle of the 21st century. Like it or not, this new generation is going to re-define much of what us old timers take for granted.

A reference librarian says she believes Wikipedia is a legitimate resource to begin research, and paraphrasing is not plagiarism.

I explain that it is perfectly okay to use Wikipedia to start your research, because it can guide you to more specific sources. It is also okay to copy ideas from other sources, as long as you understand those ideas and can put them in your own words. After all, it is not reasonable to ask a sixteen year old to come up with an original insight into Shakespeare, the Civil Rights movement or the use of antibiotics. But we can certainly do a better job in helping those students understand what might constitute legitimate information sharing from legitimate sources as opposed to short-cuts that amount to cheating.

Another reader believes that using another source's idea without reference is also plagiarism, whether or not the same words are used.

The whole point of plagiarism (which many confuse with copyright which punishes copying exact words) is that you're copying someone else's *idea* without attribution, not just their exact words.

This brings me back to the idea, written by Esther Wojcicki, about the importance of students learning the skills of a journalist: Collect and confirm information.