Plagiarism policies in most college English syllabi intend to regulate what digital text is good at: moving around and mixing up ideas with no residue or change history left behind. If I am blending print items into a collage, for example, the scraps and leftover cuttings act as traces, and some evidence of change remains. Digital textHere I am defining "text" broadly as writing that could use a range of languages and technologies, including the alphabet, visual images, or computer code. A "text" (as a "work") is anything that can be "read" for meaning, from a poem to a body position to an advertisement. needs deliberate tracing throughout the blending process in order to keep track of sources. While research with printed materials also requires deliberate tracing to avoid the frustration of a messy paper trail of notes, there are no copy and paste buttons available on the interface of analog source material. When typing or writing a passage verbatim from a book or printed article, a researcher manually reproduces each word. The cut, copy, and paste icons, represented by scissors, paper, and glue on most word processors, automate the process of collaging sources. Contrary to the scissors/paper/glue metaphor, there is nothing really manual or "sticky" about copying digital text.
Moreover, if we stop to think about it, college students might consume a lot of text in printed books, but they are much more adept at producing text in a digital format. The productive or creative activities that students do with paper are, for the most part, utilitarian and specific to an individual author writing to a known reader. Taking notes, completing exams, writing a birthday card, or taking a message for a roommate are all examples. However, the same is not true of activities that students do with a digital screen and keyboard (or touchpad). On the Internet, one can move effortlessly between the role of user and producer until the boundary line blurs, as Axel Bruns suggests with the portmanteau "produser." Unlike paper, which has to go through stages of processing to become a book for example, new media are more versatile. The computer since the 1960s "has become a universal media machine - a tool used not only for production, but also for storage, distribution, and playback" (Manovich 4).
It is precisely this collapsing of roles and uses that gives the computer a reputation for facilitating plagiarism. In a recent New York Times article tellingly entitled "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in a Digital Age," Sarah Brookover, an undergraduate student at Rutgers, reported widespread plagiarism amongst her classmates. She reflects the concept of the universal media machine: "This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don't have the same gravity. [...] When you're sitting at your computer, it's the same machine you've downloaded music with, possibly illegally, the same machine you streamed videos for free that showed on HBO last night." Universities have recognized that computers are no longer a writing tool - they are the writing tool. English classrooms equipped with computers imply that the work of college writing needs this machine, not just for typing, but for reading, composing, distribution, and storage.
For all the activities that students do on computers, and all the purposes that computers serve in a college writing classroom, why must authorship remain grounded in the notion of plagiarism, which treats the author as an individual property owner and the reader as a consumer? By this definition, plagiarism happens in the age-old transaction of information between sender and receiver. Yet, as Tiziana Terranova has recently demonstrated, today's information circulates within a dynamic environment or "milieu." Writing instructors need a plagiarism policy - and more fundamentally a revised sense of authorship - that can "live up to the urgent challenges of a multimediated, hyperconnected, and global network culture" (Terranova 53). I want to tease out the fine points of plagiarism and authorship in the context of increasing use of computers and Web 2.0A lightweight, web-based (and often free) platform, designed for "hackability and remixability" (O'Reilly 2005). By most accounts, Web 2.0 sponsors collective intelligence, cooperation, and user-generated content. Prezi, Google Docs, Twitter, Wordpress, MediaWiki, and Flickr are examples. tools in introductory college writing classes. A more complicated, less reactionary application of the word "plagiarism" might allow ethically collaborative types of authorship to flourish in tandem with the college writer's sense of him/herself as an author(ity) figure within a contemporary academic community.
The emerging terrain of digital media creates challenges and raises questions about what information is credible and authoritative, and more fundamental to my project, what "credibility" and "authority" even mean. Thus, discussions about plagiarism and the Internet will benefit from attention to the instability of these terms.
Image by Flickr user tonyhall