Lisa Maruca Department of Interdisciplinary Studies Wayne State University Detroit, mi 48202 The Plagiarism Panic: Digital Policing in the New Intellectual Property Regime Presented at the ahrb copyright Research Network

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L. Maruca

Lisa Maruca

Department of Interdisciplinary Studies

Wayne State University

Detroit, MI 48202

The Plagiarism Panic:

Digital Policing in the New Intellectual Property Regime
Presented at the

AHRB Copyright Research Network

2004 Conference on New Directions in Copyright

June 30, 2004

The act of copying all or parts of another’s text into one’s own—with or without permission, acknowledgement, fraudulent intent, or public opprobrium—has a history almost as old as writing itself. Nonetheless, at this current cultural moment, there is, in the Us and Britain at least, pervasive anxiety about what is perceived as an epidemic problem of plagiarism. A Google search of the term, for example, brings up over a million hits, a number that has been increasing steadily over the past several years. This is not just a pop Internet issue, however, but a subject generating wide ranging discussion and textual output, from library research guides, instructional handouts and teaching seminars, to institutional policies and government-funded projects, to scholarly books and articles. It is believed that plagiarism is allowed, even endorsed, by student access to information technologies such as the Internet, which allow for easy research and source retrieval and an easy way to cut and paste without attribution. The problem is perceived as adding to faculty workload, disrupting the learning process and undermining the nature and value of education itself.

Despite the time, energy and resources dedicated to prevention, surveillance and adjudication, however, little work has been done that attempts to dissect the ramifications of our current cultural concern with plagiarism. Instead, much of the instructional literature on plagiarism assumes that notions of academic honesty and the citation conventions meant to reflect that ethical grounding are based on universal traditions. It implies that while procedures for recognizing attribution may differ stylistically across disciplines, they derive from a shared, transdisciplinary, even natural, understanding of authorship, ownership and the construction of knowledge in the academy. Because the problem is seen as a “common sense” issue, reactions to it are likewise thought to be rooted in a collective sense of moral outrage. Thus, anything done to stop the problem is seen as an inherent public good.

While not denying the ethical dimension of the plagiarism problem, however, this paper argues that the recent hyper-vigilance towards faulty source use and unsanctioned copying must be analyzed in the context of a culture increasingly oriented towards “fixing” what is seen as dangerously mutable and free-flowing textuality through legal rubrics of ownership and protection. Indeed, the “plagiarism panic” can be understood as a manifestation of a prevailing anxiety about new media, global information transformation, and the morphing of discursive forms and practices that accompany these changes. More specifically, however, I argue that the cultural fixation on plagiarism must be placed in the context of other forms of unauthorized copying: the increasingly strident condemnations are both an overlooked symptom and a ramification of the increasingly restrictive global culture of copyright.

Why should those studying and formulating copyright policy care about a related but officially extra-legal cousin of copyright? I argue that discussions of plagiarism overlap with and effect the larger debates on intellectual property issues. Kathy Bowrey, in a paper presented at an earlier AHRB meeting, discusses what she calls “new theory spaces,” the multiple sites outside academia in which intellectual property is being discussed, and through which policies and technologies to manage it are formed.1 I believe that the rhetoric generated by and around plagiarism is also a “new theory space” in which the values of understanding, limiting, crediting and fairly using intellectual property in a market economy are being negotiated. The topic of plagiarism, however, has the advantage of being seen as easier for the average person to understand, or maybe just more connected to their lives, and thus more likely to be discussed in the public sphere of the popular media—especially when posed, as it usually is, in simple, black-and-white moral terms. Attitudes formed in reaction to these “conversations,” though, reflect and effect the public understanding of the provisions and ethics of copyright as well.

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