Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Plagiarism and the College Culture": a microcosm of the patent reform debate?

A review of the book by My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture by Sara D. Blum suggests that the plagiarism debate on university campuses is quite similar to the patent debate:

However, Blum suggests, the real problem of academic dishonesty arises primarily from a lack of communication between two distinct cultures within the university setting. On one hand, professors and administrators regard plagiarism as a serious academic crime, an ethical transgression, even a sin against an ethos of individualism and originality. Students, on the other hand, revel in sharing, in multiplicity, in accomplishment at any cost. Although this book is unlikely to reassure readers who hope that increasing rates of plagiarism can be reversed with strongly worded warnings on the first day of class, My Word! opens a dialogue between professors and their students that may lead to true mutual comprehension and serve as the basis for an alignment between student practices and their professors' expectations.

In the patent debate, pharma people and small inventors (among others) regard patent infringement as a serious matter, whereas IT people view technology more in terms of sharing, with patents some sort of annoyance. To the extent the analogy is valid, the history of patent reform in the years 2005-2009 suggests that there will be no "alignment between student practices and their professors' expectations." HOWEVER, unlike the patent reform debate, wherein there are economic differences underlying the positions, inspection of the behavior of some professors (eg, Laurence Tribe) shows that they also plagiarize, and thus that the "do as I say, not as I do" position could be undermined.

Further, as to plagiarism, recall the words of Mike Masnick:

We've discussed how silly the concept of "plagiarism" is in many contexts once you look at the details. It's a concept that needs to be rethought -- as it often really represents someone reimagining a work in a different, and potentially valuable context. In fact, we've seen a few plagiarized defenses of plagiarism that are pieces of art by themselves.

**The Blum book begins with a quote from Thomas Jefferson on the ploughman and the professor.


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