16 August 2010

"Commons Knowledge"

From the Associated Press and Education Week:
"Last year, students in an Easton Area High School entrepreneurship class were assigned to write business plans. While reviewing them, teachers quickly realized one student had copied entire portions of his from a plan posted on the Internet.

"When confronted, the student said he thought the information was free to take and did not realize copying it constituted plagiarism.

'"He seemed baffled," said Michael Koch, the high school's 11th- and 12th-grade principal.

'"There is a blurred vision by many in this digital age because there's just so much information they have access to," Koch said. "It's very difficult for them to filter what is mine and what is yours. It's all out there for you to utilize."

"Although local educators said they haven't seen any rise in plagiarism cases lately, many found students from a generation raised on the Internet have a different perspective on what constitutes plagiarism.

"Not only is it easier to lift material from websites, but when information is so readily available via sites such as Google and Wikipedia, it becomes less clear what material is free to take and what requires attribution.

'"Some students seem to think that whatever is out there is free to take," said Ed Lotto, director of first-year writing at Lehigh University. "They seem to think it's common knowledge and they can cite common knowledge without citation."'
"They seem to think it's common knowledge and they can cite common knowledge without citation."

Here's the question: Is it "common knowledge"?

OK, "Columbus discovered America in 1492." "Common Knowledge"? or a quote? Does a student writing that need to cite author, publisher, page number?
What histories and sources did Homer cite?
Think about that for a bit and then acknowledge that our conception of community knowledge, community cognition, is changing rapidly right now, though this is hardly the first time it has changed. Medieval monks, those who carried our knowledge base with them from the end of the Roman Empire till Gutenberg, rarely cited sources (and if they did it was through the wonderful explanatory structure of "glosses" to which I wish we would return). We cannot, for example, track the source tree for Le Morte Darthur. Nor can we do a good job of tracking the changes in Homerian poetry, and, yes, let's admit it. Those stories only survived the 800 years before literacy because people repeated them, I'll bet often without attribution. And Shakespeare, well, according to Shakespeare anything any playwright had written was "common knowledge."

Today, of course, there is not just more knowledge. There is far more available knowledge, and far more shared knowledge.

When is shared knowledge "shared knowledge"? When is it "common knowledge"? And is there such a thing as "commons knowledge"?

Isn't Wikipedia "commons knowledge"? It is community collected knowledge placed in a common place for people to use. That is the entire idea.

So is using Wikipedia uncited different than using, "the earth orbits the sun" uncited? Both are information freely and generally available, and placed in general circulation by generally unknown authors. So, what is the actual difference?

In school this is a huge question. After all, teachers and professors keep harping on plagiarism yet, according to the Education Week article, only 29% of students see it as "wrong." Obviously the old set of concepts is not resonating with the future. And even The New York Times is panicked, forcing Stanley Fish to wade into the battle, twice. Even I commented:
"Moral or professional evil is not the question for me, I believe that there is a strong societal value in being able to track the genesis of ideas, and I think that the current ways in which schools - secondary and post-secondary - attempt to teach encourages plagiarism, and in doing so, damages our ability to track ideas through time.

"It is easy to start with bad assignments: If instructors (at any level) ask for rote explanations or simple reports, plagiarism is encouraged - in fact, it is actually requested because the information sought must be copied in order to be accurate.

"But the bigger culprit is our arcane citation systems, which are tied to the antiquated technologies of the (now departed) Gutenberg Era. In today's world I want "live links" in student documents which connect me directly back to the sources, I'm not at all interested in APA or MLA citation systems. And I believe that if students learn that "quote = link" we will solve this issue (slowly) throughout society.

"Current citation systems are so bizarre and frustrating that many students would rather quote unattributed than risk getting their citations wrong. They are so complex that they encourage students to ignore the whole system.

"With today's technology every researcher, every author, has the ability - via diigo, delicious, evernote, and embedded links, to keep sources with quotes from beginning of study to publication. But in order to get future generations to do this we must (a) let them use the tools of today rather the rules of the past, and (b) we must express a more compelling social reason for theses practices than "you're stealing from Disney Corporation and Dr. Fish."
Which pretty much sums up my feelings here. As Dr. Fish ends his second column, “Plagiarism is Neither a Moral Nor a Philosophical Concept,” it is, instead, a structural way in which we engage with the world's knowledge. It is a structural system put in place by the elites of one strain of global culture, and it is a structure which, given today's information realities, requires a vast overhaul.

As I say above - if the rationale we give students is primarily economic, we're in the ugly territory of Disney and the RIAA, and you are not going to win many arguments with a system which guarantees mouse film profits for ten times as long as the fruits of pharmaceutical research. And if your rationale is that it is not "common knowledge," you better be able to express how you define "common knowledge" in a way better than I have heard before.

But if your rationale is the continued construction of community knowledge, and you make it simple - yes, "quote=link" is the phrase - your student audience might be receptive.

"Quote=Link" - forget about your citation systems. They are based in 15th Century printing technologies and 19th Century library catalogues - and nobody cares, but if you just teach this: "The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in  more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him." the problem has solved itself.

Which is no different than saying, "that's by The Beatles" as your mp3 players blasts out Hey Jude.

"A generation raised on the Internet have a different perspective on what constitutes plagiarism." Yes, as they should, because the information "commons" has changed. It is not only these students who need to learn the new rules, it is every teacher, professor, journal editor, and dissertation committee who holds to antique practices designed primarily to (a) limit entry into "Club Academe" and (b) turn a professional, structural mistake into a violation of God's word from Sinai. (Fish: "Hundreds of respondents to the column answered theft or fraud or lying or a wrong against God or plain evil. Not only is this inflation of an institutional no-no into the sum of the Ten Commandments a bit over the top; it is decidedly unhelpful when you want to tell students exactly what plagiarism is and why they should avoid it.")

So let's solve this. Let's create a link system for this world, that tells us all where information comes from.

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

Going back to the article you cite (har)....

""Not only is it easier to lift material from websites, but when information is so readily available via sites such as Google and Wikipedia, it becomes less clear what material is free to take and what requires attribution."

This is very teachable because it's drop-dead easy to discover the terms of use for many materials on the internet. For instance, Wikipedia is presented under a CC attrib share-alike license.

So we find the original source of the business plan in question. We say: Does this web site present a copyright notice? Does the Berne convention apply to this material? Is it protected under the CC, like Wikipedia? Is it presented under some license that says, 'This is boilerplate, you are welcome to it?'

These things are completely knowable, because there are laws governing them. And, as it turns out, in the 21st century, you better know something about those laws if you want to do business.


Chad@classroots.org said...

Also, why wouldn't I want a student to follow a proven business plan if one is available?

Spot on post, Ira -


Anonymous said...

Great idea, it just doesn't look good on paper.

Josie Holford said...

This is good stuff and it is time for all the plagiarism drama to subside - it's almost as bad as the moral panic that erupts periodically - and with increasing frequency - over the decline of the English language. (OMG children are texting. What about the language of Shakespeare and Milton? They are not thinking. It's the end of the world. Etc.)

But my favorite nugget in all this is always to take a look at the Plagiarism Policy and then ask: Where did you get this from? Is it original? Is it your own work? What would happen if I sent it to "Turn it in"?

Sue Downing said...

You are absolutely correct that the current citation system is arcane, bizarre, and frustrating. When writing a college paper, I spent as much time making sure my periods and commas were all in exactly the right place, with exactly the correct spacing, as I did writing the paper. All the while, I thought about the purpose or goal of citations - to give credit to the author and allow the reader to relocate sources. I remember my instructor spending two hours in class deciding whether or not "Reading Recovery" was a proper noun that necessitated capitalization of both words. What a waste of time!

Anonymous said...

The only problem in the "quote=link" model is the inherent instability of the "link" side of the equation. What if Wikipedia uses a new wiki engine that changes all links on the site? What if the website linked just disappears? What if the content on the end of the link changes the day after you link to it? The legal argument is undeniable - students and everyone have an increasingly important financial incentive to get it right when it comes to citing sources. And finding someone who doesn't "get it right" is becoming easier and easier by the day. A better system is likely necessary, but you still need to identify the what, who, where, and when of someone else's material that you use. Maybe there need to be varying strata of citation applicable appropriate to the situation. You might as well ask why we insist that geometry as a full course of study is a necessary component of mathematics education, rather than in-depth logic instruction, statistics, or linear algebra. Any of these may be more important than geometry in the 21st century, where more people manipulate and use thought structures than physical structures in their everyday work. Today's education still harkens back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when an erudite person might have a chance of consuming the entire volume of world (Western) knowledge in a lifetime. That's a patent absurdity now. Rather than choosing the foundation that could lead to comprehensive knowledge, we need to provide (predict?) the knowledge likely to be the most applicable to the most people.

irasocol said...

A couple of thoughts:

No, of course this isn't "good on paper," but then, no research is really published on paper anymore. Yes, it is available on paper, but that is not the source material.

And, yes, stability of links always has, always will be, an issue. New editions - or paperbacks - threw off page number citations. Ancient books became unavailable (before Google Books). Sites change.

So maybe our bibliographies should be page preservation screen shots?

- Ira Socol