Credit Where Credit is Due: Teaching About Plagiarism and Online Culture

I regularly teach an Avoiding Plagiarism class at the library where I work – something a lot of academic librarians do (it’s one of those learning-about-research gaps we leapt to fill en masse, it seems). I do the usual spiel about how plagiarism is bad (trying to not sound like Mr. Mackey from South Park when doing so), why we cite sources, how you can cite sources properly, tips of paraphrasing, etc. But most of the content I cover is related to the omnipresent research paper. There can be serious consequences for plagiarizing in college and it’s a content area that many of my students aren’t really aware of when they arrive on campus.

I really like teaching my plagiarism classes – we play games like “cite it or not”, do group paraphrasing activities, and talk about real world examples (and I rather shamefully become quite gleeful when another notable person becomes embroiled in a plagiarism scandal – Rand Paul was a goldmine, let me tell you). It’s pretty fun.

But I always feel like there’s an elephant in the room, though I’m often the only person aware of it – what about plagiarism in online environments? And as much as I know my students are at an academic institution where they have to write old school research papers, I also feel quite strongly about teaching them about the wide world of the internet – copyright debates, online etiquette, proper use of hyperlinks, how to attribute sources on a blog, why people get mad on Tumblr when they aren’t credited for a GIF set. Some days I feel like internet culture is the most valuable thing I can teach them about (which might be more of a “me” issue than one of the profession, but I do often ask – what are educators, particularly librarians, teaching kids about technology and how can we do more?).

At any rate, places like Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map touch some upon issues of sharing, privacy, collaborating, etc. And the blog-sphere erupts periodically often with discussions about good attribution practices (see the 2012 curator’s code and the ensuing debate) and what constitutes plagiarism online. Places like Tech Dirt keep up a steady stream of, often infuriating, news about problems with copyright and patents and how problematic laws affect ordinary individuals online. Part of being an information literate individual means, in ACRL’s opinion (though those ACRL standards are currently being revised) as well as mine, being able to understand the ethics of information and how it’s shared and that entails, in my opinion, understanding the debates surrounding how we share and consume information online as well.

And this means, to me, that I can, and maybe even should, to do more to inform my students about information ethics in environments like Twitter rather than just the confines of the academic research paper. Information literacy doesn’t begin and end with the research paper, and neither should my instruction.

For next semester, I hope to revamp my plagiarism classes to include more about internet culture. Is anyone doing this type of education in their classroom? Share below!

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