Plagiarism

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Politics of the Copy

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Where do we get the idea of the original and copy? More than a decade ago when I started wrestling with the legal regulation of digital media aka the world as we now experience it I realised that in the digital world there is no original. Instead there are copies that co-constitute each other.

I type this blog post, as I do so my computer re-arranges some electrons in its Random Access Memory. This RAM is dependant on a power supply – if the power supply is disrupted before I save the post then the configuration of the electrons will not be accessible to me. (Note to self; save the post right now). Is that the original?

I, the supposed author of the post do not have direct access to that ephemeral record, instead it is accessible only through the mediation of a computer using a particular set of programs and protocols. I interact with via a scree, this draft is displayed on a screen as I type. Is that the original? It exists only because of the arrangement of electrons in the RAM which is the basis for the display on the screen. When I make changes I perceive them on my screen but those changes are made through altering the version in temporary memory. Perhaps they co-constitute each other. Together they make up the original blog post, except that they don’t, they are not yet a blog post because they exist only on my computer. They must be available on my blog site to other users of the World Wide Web. To accomplish that I must send a version to the server that hosts my blog.

Publishing the blog post requires my computer to send signals to the blog server so that it can make a ‘copy’ of whatever it is that is in my computer right now.The blog server then uses that version to send instructions to your computer to tell your computer what to display as you can read this. So perhaps although it is a copy from my computer what is on my blog server is the original.

By now, if you haven’t given up reading you wonder what the point is. Who cares which is the original? Perhaps there are no originals in the digital world, only co-constituting copies.Why it matters is because this language of original and copy is deeply embedded in all kinds of places, in law, in literary theory and in some epistemologies. It is not only copyright law that relies on ideas of originals and copies, so does the law of evidence which requires the production of an original document rather than a copy.

If the distinction of idea and copy is no longer stable you may ask what destabilization reveals; what purposes does the distinction serve? What does it valorize and what does it occlude? What politics of the copy become visible?

A rare opportunity to talk about the politics of the copy is a workshop at the University of the Western Cape on 28 November 2015.  It is organised by Paige Sweet and Kate Highman of UWC who have called for presentations. Adam Haupt (remember Stealing Empire?) will be giving the plenary.

Plagarism in the age of Google, and post-google?

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Scott Nelson has written an insightful article ‘Attribution Lacking‘ on plagiarism, more especially his experience of plagiarism.

Its avoids the fallacious reasoning which identifies the harm of plagiarism as a property issue with all its attendant incoherence. How can an individual can be said to ‘own’ something which she cannot exclusively possess? Instead Nelson explains why being acknowledged by attribution is important to scholars, using the example of historians.

“Historians show their work — their research in the archives and their indebtedness to other authors — with footnotes. Journalists show their sources by mentioning the authors’ names. I have sympathy for reporters with impossible deadlines in an age when newspaper subscriptions are declining.”

Its important to both scholars and journalists to be attributed not because they exercise some kind of right over something as ephemeral as an idea, but precisely because its so difficult to delineate the origin of ideas, or even to unpick the tapestry of ideas in which any one idea must be situated to be meaningful at all. Scholars and journalists who have spent a lot of time and energy unearthing something new, or combining old elements into something new, enhance their reputations as contributors to the commons. Scholarly and journalistic reputations are often important to professional success but equally importantly to their standing with their peers.

But as Nelson points out attribution is important to scholars for an equally compelling reason which has much more to do with the interests of the academic commons than an individual claimed based on sweat equity.

Once discovered, those arguments become axioms, and eventually the traces of their authorship disappear. Scholars often find such effacement frustrating, but not because we want to footnote everything or demand credit for all our observations. Instead, usually decades later, we want to know whom to blame for possible mistakes.

Nelson also agrees with something that I have pointed out before, that in the age of Google its easier to detect verbatim copying, at least if what is being copied is available on the Internet.
In other words unacknowledged copying from an open access journal is far more likely to be detected than unacknowledged copying from an all rights reserved journal. Scholarly journals which charge hefty subscription dues are thus both less likely to be cited, and more likely to be successfully plagiarised.

But what will this look like in the post-google era?

Wolfram Alpha which according to its website is due to be launched in May 2009 (wait isn’t it May 2009 already) is one example of a new generation of search engines which will, it is hoped, be able to answer a question in the way that a human would. In other words someone should be able to pose a question, at least a factual question, and obtain an answer. The way that Wolfram Alpha intends to achieve that is through powerful algorithms, but also by putting content, curated content, into a particular format. That won’t displace Google for people looking to buy a book, grokking a contact, or looking for news. It will affect how academic researchers use the Internet.

What will that mean for current concepts of attribution, plagiarism, teaching and evaluation?