Copyrights and wrongs;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
The Net need not spawn a plague of plagiarists. But we do need new rules on legitimate copying, says Jack Kenny

For months people had been telling me the Internet was full of students passing work around and encouraging others to plagiarise it. The stories always came from teachers who view the Web as an intellectual black death. I looked in vain. It's all a myth, I told myself. Then, searching for something else, I stumbled across the following invitation to cheat in the middle of the site of one of the most prestigious British Internet providers.

What is to stop anyone else downloading this student's essay on capital punishment and submitting it as their own? And is what this particular student is doing wrong?

While he is kindly sharing his work with everyone on the Internet, he prefaces the whole thing with a health warning rather like those people who sell hemp seed and warn you that it is illegal to germinate them.

Despite the fears raised in the popular press, his action isn't wrong. The trouble is that we are still using the rules of the paper-based society rather than those of the digital society. If someone lifts an essay from the web and submits it as it is, then there is an intention to deceive. If it is used as a basis for improvisations on the theme of capital punishment, then it isn't. The trouble is that in most classrooms these questions are not discussed, and outside the classroom a whole universe of documents of all types is growing daily.

It really started with CD-Rom. Students grew used to finding an essay on Byron in the encyclopaedia, printing it out and submitting it as their own. They didn't even have to read it. Now, on the Internet, there is a vast jungle of texts and ideas ranging from the profound to the trivial, from the exalted to the debased. Most words now produced are created for an electronic medium. Virtually every important text is available somewhere, either on the Internet or on CD-Rom. Newspapers create web editions every day, writers publish their work directly on the Web, large archives on every subject are there for us - if we can find them. There is a whole "docuverse" out there. We have to learn how to use it.

hy do we worry about copying? Teachers are the people, intellectual jackdaws, who have pieced together a matrix of knowledge: an idea here, a philosophy there, a quote over there, synthesised until they think that it is theirs. How many of us wielding our highlighter pens, smearing words with yellow, copying out footnotes, have had an original thought in our lives? Why should we be so resentful that what we did in libraries, can now be done electronically? It's not copying that is the sin but how we copy.

We have to teach students how to copy. We have to teach them that not all writing is creative, that most writing is assembling, adapting to a different audience, editing, synthesising, that there is nothing wrong with taking a sentence from here, a paragraph from there as long as they work it into something that they have internalised, synthesised. Writing is collage. The skills of doing all of these things are at least as important as writing a short story.

The student whose work I stumbled across is making us face a dilemma that few of us have faced before. The ease with which work can be moved from one place to another has almost changed the nature of words. No longer do they have the permanence of grooves on tombstones. Sentences are almost as fluid as water. This can be a matter of regret, but the reality is that virtually all text now is electronic.

We need new rules for the national grid for learning. We need to learn and to teach how to use the new texts. Electronic text has so many virtues: it is malleable; it can be reduced or expanded; distributed easily, quickly and cheaply; it can be embellished with sound and graphics and animation; it can be focused on a new audience. Electronic texts are better than texts on paper, not for reading but for working with. We have to get used to that and start exploiting such texts for learning in all the subjects that use the written word.

My student could help others, but maybe not in the way that he imagined.

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