Is 'Borrowing' From Wikipedia Plagiarism?

Or the natural result of mash-up culture?

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College students seem to understand that plagiarism is wrong, but are hung up on what, exactly, constitutes the stealing of another person's ideas. In an article for The New York Times, Trip Gabriel highlights an apparently disconcerting trend: students tend to poach "common information" from websites and use it in their essays as their own. This type of information, explained Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, is the stuff that "just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author...It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take."

That little misconception has proven a boon for students looking to beef up their term papers and a headache for some professors who have no idea how to regulate the unattributed content. It's a new wrinkle in a never-ending debate, and eager pundits have already weighed in:

  • Maybe It's Time to Redefine the Rules offers Anna Leach at the website, Shiny Shiny. Failing to attribute an author may be wrong but, "is it so wrong to re-use, re-mix, re-write or repost? I don't think it is. It's not fully the orginal creator's anymore, but it's not fully yours either - it's a kind of collaboration. In answering essay questions with other people's words, students are just using the maximum resources they can to produce the best answer they can - one better than if they had done it completely themselves."
  • As Students 'Misunderstand', Professors Fumble to Explain the seriousness of plagiarism, writes a Huffington Post News blogger. Tools such as the document scanner Turnitin and basic ethics courses have been added to college curricula in order to combat the problem, but "attitudinal shifts may be to blame for the seeming increase" in the practice.
  • The Mash-Up Culture is Not a Culture of Plagiarism and "[t]hose who copy music, lift riffs, or appropriate images don’t usually claim authorship of the original source material or claim it as their own," retorts Jonathan H. Adler at The Volokh Conspiracy, who doesn't find the Times' "common information" explanation persuasive. "Web links often serve as source attributions, and even Wikipedia pages demand footnotes. Even in the Internet Age, we recognize the difference between incorporating the work of another and passing it off as one’s own." College students, he writes, are simply just under prepared and cheat even though they know it's wrong.
  • It's Intellectual Fraud and Alien to the Educational Process responds blogger Norman Geras, who prescribes harsher punishments for plagiarism. "This is that, if you simply claim whole chunks of writing, unattributed, as if you are the author of it yourself, you're presenting as a product of your own mind, your own reasoning, your own analytical or rhetorical or whatever capacities, something that... isn't."
  • The Line Between Cita­tion and Theft Has Always Been Smudgy and the proper way to attribute things is still confusing, writes Nancy Nall on her eponymous blog. "The term 'com­mon knowl­edge' means it belongs to every­one, after all, so I was always wrestling with some cita­tion or another — did I have to foot­note dates? Sim­ple facts? I think the only rea­son it comes eas­ier now is because I’m accus­tomed to report­ing, with all its attri­bu­tion and colons."
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