The rapid development of electronic media and their use in teaching have outpaced the ability of our laws and social mores to develop clear parameters. How can an instructor help students understand the complexity of these issues? One strategy is to point students to professional guidelines, such as the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for the Electronic Community of Learners proposed by the American Association for Higher Education, which states that "all citizens have ownership rights over their own intellectual works" (Article I, Section 5), and that "it shall be each citizen's personal responsibility to recognize (attribute) and honor the intellectual property of others" (Article II, Section 2). When Boston University filed its lawsuit alleging wire fraud, mail fraud and racketeering against eight online term paper mills in seven states, I doubt that it expected to be able to shut these sites down. It did proclaim loudly and clearly, however, that though the concept of intellectual property may be open for discussion, academic integrity on its campus is not.
Teaching about plagiarism in the age of print was fairly straightforward. In the digital era, it is not. And though the issues have out-paced our ability to present answers with clarity and consensus, the fact is that most of our institutions spell out codes for student conduct. These codes may need significant revisions. The same situation exists with current copyright laws. Until these codes and laws are revised, however, students circumvent them at their own risk.
If we who teach want an environment wherein "trust and intellectual freedom are the foundation for individual and institutional growth and success" (Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, Article IV, Introduction), our students must hear that message from us. As Doug Brent reiterates in "Rhetorics of the Web: Implications for Teachers of Literacy" (Kairos 2.1), "academic institutions must develop much clearer codes that . . . 'spell out in detail the various lines that can be crossed between patchwriting, non-attribution and downright cheating.'" To us, unauthorized use of sources may be clear; to our students, it may not always be so obvious. When students deliberately choose to plagiarize, unless they understand why it matters, they may decide that it is worth the risk. Clearly we need larger conversations about the ethics and the processes of writing in the electronic era.
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