Monday, July 02, 2007

Watching one's voice, or, a writer is not a reporter 

It takes almost no time to find a faculty member here who has had an experience with Internet plagiarism. A study from Rutgers University four years ago (that I find cited frequently) found that 38% of students survey said they had cut-and-pasted from the internet into their research papers. 44% of students thought this was trivial and not cheating. By comparison, only five percent of the students surveyed had turned in papers out of paper mill or otherwise downloaded from an online source.

One of the reasons I find students having this issue is the misunderstanding of the academic voice in writing. When one writes as a student or faculty member of such-and-such university, one conveys a seriousness to the exercise. It says, I am a person who thought about a subject in a sincere intellectual pursuit of truth, and here is what I found in that pursuit. Students tend to write like the examples they read -- alas, these are most often email and instant messages (thus the papers that refer to "ur" rather than "your" or only use the middle letter of "are".) Some more serious students nevertheless try to imitate styles of journalists or, more often, columnists. The imitations are often wincingly bad, but I simply tell them instead "your voice should be that of a serious student, not Dave Barry." Let Mr. Barry write his own academic tomes.

We have software we use to get at this, which can be otherwise a daunting, time-consuming task. The stuff is expensive, as you'd expect for something that can replace that much labor. And reading this article on newspaper plagiarism indicates that the best way to combat it -- not defeat, that's too lofty a goal -- is to make sure students know what it is and how severe it is. I read the first item of "Prohibited Conduct" from the student handbook:
Academic dishonesty, including but not limited to, cheating, plagiarism, misrepresentation of student status, and resume falsification. Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, the use by paraphrase or direct quotation, the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment; unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in selling or otherwise providing term papers or other academic materials; and commercialization sale or distribution of class notes without the instructors' permission. (Emphasis added.)
While Mitch and Michael were discussing the issue of plagiarism at Minnesota Monitor, Michael called to ask whether the use of a quote from a published source met my definition of plagiarism. Pointing to the above definition, what I could say was that if a student here did what Mr. Fecke at MinMon did on a paper turned in to me, I would call it plagiarism. Use of the adverb "reportedly" would not suffice -- I would have written in red in the margin, "reported where? Give source."

Now certainly a newspaper article is not an academic work. And certainly as well, a newspaper gets press releases that can be used as quotes without attribution (it's considered something in lieu of an interview.) But by its own standards, MinMon says its 'new journalist fellows' should "[i]dentify sources when possible." I think it is fair to hold a website that puts such statements on its pages up to those standards.

The Society of Professional Journalists, in 1984, added this sentence to its code of ethics: "Plagiarism is dishonest and unacceptable." (Source.) Indeed, as Fred Fedler points out in that piece,
Typically, SPJ's code does not define plagiarism. The Associated Press Stylebook does not include an entry on "Plagiarism" but devotes slightly more than a page to "Copyright Guidelines."13 Similarly, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute found that most newspapers had no clear rules about plagiarism and that editors seemed loath to define it. Clark found no guidelines, no warnings, not even the word "plagiarism" in the indices of newspaper stylebooks and journalism textbooks on his shelves.14

Journalism's trade and professional publications devote more attention to the topic, and Editor & Publisher has blamed journalism schools "for sending out interns and graduates who pilfer other people's work."15
(Click the source article to follow the footnotes.)

This is what strikes me as the takeaway from this story: In Mr. Fecke we have a young man, reared on the blogosphere, who has been encouraged by an agenda-driven news site to wear the mantle of "journalist". He identifies himself as a freelance writer, and he writes like, well, a freelance writer. In trying to effect the voice of a journalist he has failed to grasp the seriousness of the enterprise. This does not make him a journalist, and to do so would require more care over his articles than the editors of MinMon have provided, at least in this case. Perhaps new fellow Eric Black can provide the seasoned wisdom that the current leadership has failed to provide to its new journalist fellows.

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