In a recent opinion piece appearing in the Washington Post, Jason Johnson argues that in today’s cut-and-paste world, the term paper is becoming irrelevant:
Today I plagiarized multiple documents at work. I took the writing of others and presented it to my supervisor as if it were my own. It was an open secret that my entire report, written “by Jason Johnson,” had been composed by others and that I had been merely an editor. Instead of a reprimand, I was rewarded with a post-briefing latte.
In the fast-paced world of today, Johnson claims, no one has time to worry about who the real “author” of a document is, and no one cares. It’s all about results, and his report delivered. Our educational institutions, by demanding that students do their own work, are preparing them improperly for the modern workplace, where cut-and-paste is the law of the land.
Actually, Johnson’s argument is a little more sophisticated than that. It relies on the idea that as students get craftier, plagiarism is more difficult to detect:
One university professor, writing anonymously on his “concernedprofessor” blog, notes that students today create “hyper-plagiarism which becomes harder and harder to catch. While these chimera-esque papers can, most of the time, be easily spotted through the mixing of language styles, clever students can pass these off throughout their academic careers with little worry.”
Whenever work is done outside the classroom, students can employ all sorts of devices to cover their tracks. Since plagiarism is so difficult to detect, Johnson argues, then papers composed outside the class shouldn’t be used as a way to measure ability. It’s just too easy to cheat. After all, he says, “I envision a time when TurnItIn.com’s database contains millions of essays on Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre.’ At that point educators may finally understand that no high school student will be able to write another original word on the subject.”
But there’s a problem with this sort of throw-your-hands-in-the-air futility. When they reach the workplace, today’s students will need to be able to produce lengthy narrative reports, not just paragraph-long essay test responses. Yes, in certain settings, cut-and-paste briefings may be acceptable, but in many, many others, they will not. Why else would Viacom be suing YouTube for $1 billion? Yet even Viacom faces the “plagiarism hard to detect” problem — many of the thousands of items it asked to be removed from YouTube turned out not to be plagiarized.
Perhaps for internal reports, the cut-and-paste variety will be acceptable, but when a company puts its work up for sale, whether that work is a TV show or a consulting report for a single client, its customers expect to see original work. If students are never expected to produce work of their own, then where will tomorrow’s employees learn how to do it?
This is not to say that re-using the work of others can’t be extremely valuable: indeed, Cognitive Daily wouldn’t exist but for the previously-existing work of hundreds of others. But such re-use still needs to add something — an explanation for a non-expert audience, a new way to demonstrate it, a poll so that readers can see for themselves how an experiment works. Originality isn’t just about creating something new, it’s often simply taking something old and presenting it in a new way.
That’s what we need to be teaching today’s students: how to put something of themselves into the work of others, not just slapping their name on a work and trying to pass it off as their own.