ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement IV: We recognize and respect intellectual property rights.
It’s hard to remember, but intellectual property theft existed prior to electronic cutting and pasting, peer-to-peer music sharing services, and free term paper sites. It’s just that the speed, availability, and ease with which property can be copied have all led to greater instances of piracy, plagiarism, and even disdain for copyright laws.
The librarian has an ethical responsibility to help students understand that property is a two-sided issue: they need to respect the property of others as well as protect their own property from the abuses of others. Students need to know about the unethical practices of others and how to protect themselves from those practices. Students need to know that their own original work is protected by copyright laws and that they have a right to give or not give permission for others to use it. Students need to know that passwords must be kept confidential to prevent the unauthorized access to a student’s data, as well as to help insure a student’s privacy.
Work by the advocated for CreativeCommons has increased awareness of the rights, especially fair use rights, of the users of copyrighted materials as well. Teachers and students need to know how they can use copyrighted materials for educational purposes - legally. Creators of original materials also need to know that CreativeCommons licenses can be assigned one's work that allows for less restrictive use by others.
But the major challenge for the librarian is still helping teachers stem the tide of plagiarism washing through our schools that has been exacerbated by new technologies. One study reports that more than half of those high school students surveyed acknowledged downloading a paper from the Internet or copying text without proper attribution.
While we need to acknowledge this is a serious problem, too much effort is being expended by teachers and librarians trying to “catch” plagiarism in student work. Using various web services such as Turnitin.comTM and techniques using search engines to determine if or how much of student writing is lifted from online sources is a primary means of addressing plagiarism issue.
Ethically, we need to spend the greatest share of our time in preventing plagiarism before it happens. And this can and should be done in a number of ways:
- By teaching:
- what plagiarism is
- when and why to paraphrase
- when using another’s words is appropriate
- how to cite all formats of sources
- By having a school or district-wide “cheating” policy that includes the definition and consequences for plagiarism
- By creating “assignments worth doing”
Our time as educators is best spent in creating assignments that minimize the likelihood of plagiarism. Rather than making assignments that can be easily plagiarized and then contriving methods for detecting or reducing copying, we should be spending our time with teachers planning projects that require original, thoughtful research. Some attributes of research assignments that authentically reduce the likelihood of plagiarism include:
- They have a clarity of educational purpose readily shared with and understood by the student.
- The students themselves have a choice of research topic or research emphasis.
- They are related to topics relevant to students’ lives and experiences or to the community in which the students live.
- The results of the research may be shared in a narrative rather than expository style of writing style, and the results include observations about the research process as well as the research conclusions.
- They stress higher level thinking skills of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation and promote creative solutions to problems
- The research answers real questions or helps solve genuine problems.
- The completion of the information seeking project requires a variety of information finding activities including primary research for a complete response.
- Research units include “hands-on” activities such as using technology to communicate the findings or allowing a multi-sensory approach to communicating the findings.
- Projects require cooperation or collaboration by teams of students.
- The results of students’ research are shared with an audience beyond the teacher and the classroom.
- The projects have clearly stated assessment criteria that are given at the time of the assignment. The criteria address creativity and originality as quality indicators.
- The units are structured and monitored in such a way that students are given the opportunity to review, revise, reflect, and improve on the product throughout the research process.
We need to acknowledge that when students plagiarize, they are not just violating the ethical principles of intellectual property, but they also are not learning the skills needed to successfully solve problems and answer questions. If those critical skills are not taught and practiced, the librarian may have violated an even greater professional ethic.