ENGL516 and the Confusing World of Copyright Laws and School Plagiarism Policies

Yesterday, I read “Moving Beyond the Plagiarized/Not Plagiarized in a Point, Click, and Copy World” by Leslie Johnson-Farris. In this article, Johnson-Farris criticizes college policies on fair use in student work, claiming that many of these policies are written with only economic issues in mind. In this sense, the policies only exist to prevent students from using copyrighted materials in their work improperly when they should also be addressing the student’s rights and ownership in terms of the work that they create. And since plagiarism is not a simply black or white, “done, or not done” distinction (313), educators need to spend more time talking with their students (ideally on the first day of class and then more throughout the semester) about why copyright laws are in place, what their importance is, what fair use is, and how student work is protected as well.

I was surprised to learn that some online plagiarism detection services, which many instructors require students to submit papers through to check for plagiarism before turning in, ironically take control/rights over all student work that comes in for submission. Turnitin.com is an example of one of these websites. Fortunately for me, I’ve never been asked to use such a service for a class, but I’ve also never realized how problematic this is for students who aren’t given a choice. In making students submit (forfeit?) their work to these websites, aren’t instructors pretty explicitly demonstrating that it’s more important to ensure that students aren’t using other peoples’ ideas than it is to ensure that students’ rights/ownership of their work is actually being protected?

As Johnson-Farris puts it, “If administrators, instructors, and copyright holders wonder why students hold so little respect for the intellectual property rights of others in a digital age, we should probably look no further than how we view student work.” (317) I agree with her that maybe it is time for educators to spend a little more time talking about these things in classrooms (for example: why do we use MLA or APA?) and for administrators to rethink their policies through a different lens: one that includes protection of student work as well.

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