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There is an extraordinary tension in our culture between individual creativity and the creative community, between originality and a shared body of knowledge, between the acts of reading culture and writing culture. And our students are caught in the middle.

In reality, culture exists in that in-between space where things are shared. When we read, we inscribe what we read with our own meaning. When we write, we draw inspiration from all of the things we have read; they follow our words like shadows thrown behind us. When we come up with a new idea, we’ve built it on ideas that others have already had and hope our ideas become a platform for new construction. We are never entirely alone, and our ideas are never entirely original.

These things become murky when students who are told to work independently break the rules and collaborate on homework or an exam. Harvard students are currently in the news for having done this; a few years ago students at Ryerson University in Canada formed a Facebook group to work on homework problems (and were, wittingly or not, following advice provided on the university’s own website advising students how to study effectively). One can argue that these students violated a clearly-stated rule and so are unequivocally guilty of cheating. But it also seems clear that we are sending mixed messages: forming study groups is good for learning. Except when you’re told not to, in which case it’s so unethical it can get you expelled.

Some argue that students’ willingness to cheat is a symptom of our skewed values as a society – that getting a grade and being awarded a degree is more important than learning, that an investment in college has become less to do with knowledge or personal development and everything to do with material success. This is nothing new; we’ve grumbled about students being too focused on grades for as long as I can remember. Students quoted in the Times seemed to feel they were the ones who had been cheated, that they had been tricked into thinking they could pass the course without much work and were unfairly given tests that were harder than expected, that the rules of engagement were violated. Other commentaries suggest (as did the Harvard dean of undergraduate education) that technology feeds cheating because it makes sharing too easy. (Libraries work hard to make sharing easy, and still largely fail; faulting our systems for being “too easy” seems a bit perverse.) On the other hand, it also makes it more detectable. Had the students at Ryerson met face to face in the library to work on homework problems rather than on Facebook, they likely would never have faced punishment.

I suspect a large part of the problem is that we send such mixed messages to students. You may hate group work, but it will prepare you for the reality of the workplace - but when we tell you to work alone, don’t discuss the test or homework problems with anybody else or face severe punishment. When you write a paper, your work must be original - but back up every point by quoting someone else who thought of it first. Develop your own voice as a writer – but try to sound as much like us as possible.

The fire and brimstone tone of plagiarism warnings are another kind of mixed message. Most students understand that it’s ethically wrong to purchase a paper and hand it in as one’s own. Most students understand that copying chunks of text without acknowledging the source is plagiarism. But most students will encounter gray areas. What if they can’t recall where they first encountered an idea? What if they only found a source because another source pointed them toward it? Given they weren’t born knowing what they are writing about, what is there that they shouldn’t cite? If they check Wikipedia to refresh their memory of a film, should they cite it, or does the “common knowledge” loophole absolve them of that duty? Apparently not.

Conscientious students spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to cite new forms of publication that continually escape the rulebooks, and the rules are updated in ways that are puzzling and complex. The APA now encourages writers to say they articles were retrieved from publishers’ websites when, in fact, they were retrieved from a library website. (Of course, the APA makes a great deal of money as a publisher, and they probably feel publishers are the rock-solid source of knowledge, now that libraries are mostly renting information on a temporary basis.) Deciding how to cite an article requires a daunting flowchart – which nevertheless fails to answer the problem of how to locate the link to the publisher’s website when you actually got the article from a library database. Saying an article was “retrieved from” a site where it wasn’t seems wrong. Yet following citation rules is an important part of academic integrity. My head hurts.

All of this complexity is compounded by dire warnings about the consequences of plagiarism, layered on top of a mistaken notion that research is formalized copying. Who would ever fall in love with research under these conditions? Who would even think it is a meaningful activity?

Yet during this election season it seems more important than ever that students develop respect for the process of making decisions based on reasoning and evidence. That they understand that knowledge is built through sharing, and that they as individuals can play a role in shaping our communal understanding. That they learn to care about how ideas are shared and whether evidence is cherry-picked, misrepresented, or simply wrong. It’s a shame that so much of energy goes into policing for plagiarism when there are much more interesting and complex ethical dilemmas around the use and misuse of information, dilemmas we encounter every single day.

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