Quick take: Can an idea really be owned? Looking at how authorship is perceived across different cultures and generations can help us reflect about our own views, and create more effective ways to teach students about academic integrity and proper citation.
Goethe once said “There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before; we must only try to think it again.”1 In an increasingly collaborative, information-based world, is our view of textual ownership becoming outdated?
Integrity is often described as adherence to moral or ethical principles.2 Academic integrity, for its part, comprehends a set of well-accepted rules followed by the most renowned universities, mainly western institutions, which receive students from all over the world. However, in order to understand how these rules were created – many of them regarding academic writing – we need to first understand western views of ownership of text.
The western ideological perspective of textual ownership sees the author as the single creator of his texts. In this context, plagiarism is considered as a violation against the author and thereby is morally wrong.3
Alastair Pennycook, distinguished professor of Language, Society and Education at the University of Technology Sydney, however, sees plagiarism as a more complex phenomenon that is associated to the relationships between text, learning and memory.
In his view, what defines plagiarism is the way cultures understand the notions of authorship and textual ownership. The ownership of text, he argues, is a western concept originated in the Enlightenment era, when there was a shift from a mimetic, biblical, premodern paradigm, to a productive, modern way of thinking.4
In the premodern paradigm, individual creativity was attributed to a divine inspiration. As a result, literary work was un-authored during this period. The Enlightenment replaced that point of view for a new one according to which “Imagination was no longer a mimetic capacity, but a productive force.” The humanist subject became “the centre of creativity;” that and the notion of property rights “produced an understanding of individual ownership of ideas and language. […] This understanding of imagination is clearly closely tied to the development of the notion of the author,” Pennycook writes.4
The conceptions of copyright and intellectual property first appeared in British law around 1710.4 It was the beginning of authorship as western societies now understand it, based on a capitalist view of property and ownership, that resulted in the current concept of plagiarism as it is accepted in educational institutions. “It assumes that everything of value can be owned, bought, and sold and that ideas, knowledge, and art are created by individuals who have the rights of ownership,” researchers Lea Calvert Evering and Gary Moorman write.5
But what does it mean to be an author? Is it possible to write only original ideas? Can an author really own an idea? In the 19th century, some new conceptions appeared and the modernist paradigm begins to be called into doubt.
Pennycook points out that “The notion of the individual as creative guarantor of meaning and originality, this particular vision of self and authenticity, has taken a fair battering since Marx, Freud, and others have questioned the notion of the unmediated and authentic expression of self.”4
According to him, the postmodern and poststructuralist positions on language, discourse, and subjectivity, raise serious questions for any notion of individual creativity or authorship. “If, instead of a Self or an Identity, we consider the notion of subjectivity, or indeed subjectivities (we are, in a sense, the fragmented products of different discourses), then we arrive at more or less a reversal of the speaking subject creating meaning: we are not speaking subjects but spoken subjects, we do not create language but are created by it.”4 To Pennycook, the postmodernist view has moved from “the author owning and giving meaning to text to the notion that meaning is derived from the interaction with a text.”3
Pennycook cites Richard Kearney to suggest that “Postmodernism casts a suspecting glance on the modernist cult of creative originality,” a kind of skepticism that points to the need to “reevaluate beliefs in originality and textual ownership.” He writes, “There is a degree of hypocrisy in the defense of the culture of originality because postmodern understandings of language and meaning, by contrast, point to the possibility of little more than a circulation of meanings.”3
It was 1967, three decades before the beginning of the internet as we know today, when Roland Barthes wrote The Death of the Author. In his essay, the French literary critic argued that “All writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”6
Deceased in 1980, Barthes never came to know the World Wide Web and the technologies and collaborative tools now available that have made the boundaries of authorship so hazy. Traditional definitions of plagiarism are being challenged by the digital revolution, indicating perhaps an approximation with a postmodernist line of thought, and also with Barthes’ ideas about the changing concept of authorship.
What defines plagiarism is the way cultures understand the notions of authorship and textual ownership.
What does it mean to be original in a society where the circulation of ideas and information is so intense and incessant? Consider, for example, a collaborative website like Wikipedia. If hundreds, or even thousands of people are contributing to write a more accurate, complete article about a specific subject, who is the author of that? And beyond that, does it matter? Couldn’t it be that the sum of individual contributions is creating something richer and better?
For researchers Evering and Moorman, easy access to massive amounts of information are making policing for ownership of ideas nearly impossible. “This situation has caused the current millennial generation to see knowledge ownership, acquisition, and distribution in radically different terms than in previous generations. Clearly, academia is past due in reevaluating the concept and how we deal with it in secondary and higher education.”5
They argue that, since much of the content on the internet is free, in their lives outside of school it is second nature for millennials to download, copy, and paste. “Their concept of ownership is different from the one their teachers and professors grew up with and have come to take for granted.” According to the researchers, additional analysis and definition of intellectual property is needed by both students and faculty.5
Another issue is the expectations and academic standards imposed on millennials. In assignments that emphasize creativity, innovation, and collaboration, it may be difficult to credit the original source. Also, as collaboration is becoming one of the most desired competencies for 21st century companies, students are highly encouraged to use tools such as wikis, social media and document sharing and editing platforms. “Web 2.0 tools designed to foster digital literacy and socially constructive online learning experiences have altered conventions and cultural norms for writing,” say Evering and Moorman.5
There are also cultural considerations to be made. The emphasis on creativity and authorship typical of the West is not followed in many cultures around the world, especially in Asian nations, where knowledge can be seen as a shared property rather than an individual possession.
Students that come from these cultures to attend western universities often struggle to understand very different concepts and rules about academic integrity, since the modernist interpretation of textual ownership is still eminent in western academia, with an emphasis on individual ownership of text and the need for attribution.
Hong Jian, a researcher from Xishuangbanna Vocational & Technical Institute, compares learning styles of American and Chinese students in a paper called A Contrastive Study of Cultural Diversity of Learning Styles between China and the United States.7 He concludes that “Due to cultural diversity, Americans […] emphasize the pragmatism of the knowledge, but to some extent, the result of teaching and learning styles lead to lack of systematical knowledge. In contrast, owing to the deep-rooted influence of Confucianism for thousands of years, harmony, unity, and hierarchy are important considerations for Chinese students in the process of learning. Its teaching puts more emphasis on transmission of systematical knowledge, ignoring the cultivation of creativity and innovation,” he explains.
In order to reduce the number of violations due to unintentional cheating, institutions should develop specific policies and support mechanisms for foreign students. It is important that faculty is flexible and understands that they come from a different sociocultural environment, and teach them writing techniques so that they know how to put into practice a new interpretation on integrity, as opposed to criticizing or invalidating their knowledge, learning style or educational experience.
Deriding other cultures for their supposedly imitative cultural practices may be a form of ideological arrogance, as Pennycook points out. “The important point here is that whereas we can see how the notion of plagiarism needs to be understood within the particular cultural and historical context of its development, it also needs to be understood relative to alternative cultural practices.”
Defining what it means to act with integrity in academia might become more and more challenging as the world turns increasingly globalized and digital. What we know for sure is that institutions will need to strive to understand the needs and conceptions of the incoming student generations. It may be time to rethink some of the western notions of textual ownership, and look at the collaborative world that is emerging from a refreshed and more flexible point of view.
1 Von Goethe, J. W. (2013). Maxims and reflections. Retrieved August 30, 2017, from http://www.philaletheians.co.uk/study-notes/living-the-life/goethe’s-maxims-and-reflections.pdf
2 International Center for Academic Integrity. (n.d.). About Integrity. Retrieved August 29, 2017, from http://www.academicintegrity.org/icai/integrity-1.php
3 Introna, L., Hayes, N., Blair, L., & Wood, E. (2003, August). Cultural attitudes towards plagiarism: developing a better understanding of the needs of students from diverse cultural backgrounds relating to issues of plagiarism. Retrieved August 29, 2017, from http://www.academia.edu/1362321/Cultural_attitudes_towards_plagiarism.
4 Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing Others Words: Text, Ownership, Memory, and … Retrieved August 29, 2017, from http://www.bing.com/cr?IG=870A63B2E5E24664820D45C54109991E&CID=336718CE093A6AFD0D221223083C6B51&rd=1&h=Ai-oHojFyZojNcNQAMwbYWu_aeFsdfV-BmGWZ0nBqNg&v=1&r=http%3a%2f%2fwww.idt.mdh.se%2fkurser%2fcomputing%2fDVA403%2fDVA403-2012%2fLectures%2fBorrowingTextOwnershipPlagiarism.pdf&p=DevEx,5062.1.
5 Evering, L. C., & Moorman, G. (2012). Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy,56(1), 35-44. doi:10.1002/jaal.00100
6 Barthes, R. (n.d.). The Death of the Author. Retrieved August 30, 2017, from https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf.
7 Jian, H. (2009). A Contrastive Study of Cultural Diversity of Learning Styles between China and the United States. International Education Studies, 2(1). doi:10.5539/ies.v2n1p163.