A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that teachers felt that, while technology has made writing easier to teach, it’s also made student writing less formal and, even more worrisome, led to an increase in plagiarism.
The 2,400 teachers who responded to the Pew Center’s survey gave students low marks on their understanding of copyright, fair use and citation, even though more and more teachers are saying that they are spending time discussing these issues.
The concerns outlined in the survey follow a familiar pattern. A pattern that includes technology having a corrupting effect on young students, tempting them into plagiarism and copyright infringement.
But while it is true the Internet has made it easier for students to plagiarize, it’s easy to forget that the Web is not as new of a technology as many seem to think. The Internet has been a part of public schools since at least the mid 90s. Though its use and commonality has increased with time, schools were creating online newspapers, teaching Internet research and generally surfing the Web for 20 years.
This means that the kids who were setting up the first websites in high school are in their 30s. They’re no longer students at all but are active members of the research community, working productively in every field, even though they’ve had easy access to the Internet for most of their lives and have used it for their work just as long.
While there has been an increase in retractions related to plagiarism in recent years, much of it is attributed to better detection of plagiarism and stronger enforcement of plagiarism rules, not simply there being more plagiarism.
When it comes to plagiarism, technology has been a double-edged sword. On one hand it has made plagiarism itself much easier, streamlining the process of finding content to plagiarize and bringing the duplicated material into a new work. On the other, it’s made plagiarism much easier to detect and prevent, creating tools to both catch mistakes and stop those who are acting in bad faith.
The truth is that most researchers, like most students, are honest and for them technology has been a boon. Not only does it make writing and researching easier, but the plagiarism detection tools make it easier to catch oversights before they lead to retractions or rejections.
It’s only for those who seek to be dishonest that the technology has been both a blessing and a curse.
While we won’t know what the long term impact of the Internet is on research for a long time to come, early indications are that it hasn’t been nearly the catastrophe many have feared. Most young researchers are doing well, despite having grown up and lived with the Internet most of their lives.
Though many fear that technology is going to create a generation of plagiarists, so far that hasn’t panned out. Though technology, in some ways, enables plagiarism it also, through plagiarism detection tools, restricts and prevents it. Though the onus still falls on teachers, professors and editors to teach and look for plagiarism, with 88 percent of teachers surveyed saying they are doing just that, it seems at least teachers are getting better at it, not worse.
So while technology will inevitably have an impact on plagiarism, it won’t be the catastrophe many fear, due to a combination of teaching and technology. The young researchers of today are proving that point and the young researchers of tomorrow almost certainly will too.
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