Content Integrity: Where Piracy and Plagiarism Meet

Yin Yang ImageThe the organizers of the 6th International Integrity & Plagiarism Conference asked me to do the give the closing address to the audience, I knew I had an impossible task.

Not only did I have to take the stage right after the amazing keynote by Dan Ariely, but I had the task of summarizing three whole days of conference time in just a short fifteen minutes.

During lunch on that last day of the conference, I poured over my notes of the four keynotes I had seen up to that point and tried to pull out a common theme. As you’ve seen over my three previous posts, the conversation was very diverse and covered the gamut on academic integrity, plagiarism, and cheating.

But I realized the conversation had been different this year. While plagiarism remained a core focus, much of the conversation had shifted to the broader issue of academic integrity. While the conference still had its talks about plagiarism detection, it also talked at length about drafting academic integrity policy, teaching students not to cheat and effective enforcement of all academic standards.

But even that broad topic felt somewhat narrow, especially after watching Dan Ariely discuss issues of cheating and dishonesty more broadly. As several had discussed over the course of the conference, academic integrity does not happen in a vacuum. Academic integrity is not separate from “real world” integrity. The two impact each other and are deeply related.

That, in turn, was the theme I chose to go with for my closing notes, themes which closely mirrored no only Dan Ariely’s talk, but also Tracey Bretag’s talk from earlier in the day and several other conversations I had over the course of the conference.

However, the more I thought about that theme, the more impact it had on me and my thoughts about my work and this site. Thoughts that may change the way I think about plagiarism and copyright.

A Site of Two Worlds

Plagiarism Today has always been something of an odd site. It started looking at online plagiarism but quickly branched out to all types of plagiarism, including academic, research and more.

However, because of the nature of the plagiarism conversation, a detailed discussion about copyright was in order. Learning how to stop online plagiarism is impossible without a good understanding of the law. However, since the goal was to help rightsholders protect their works, the conversation also moved into piracy and more traditional copyright infringement issues.

What resulted was a site that addressed all forms of content misuse but had its feet planted in two separate worlds, one of the ethical issues of plagiarism and one of the legal side of enforcement. Where the intersection of ethics and laws meet has always been my favorite place, but getting there has always meant living in two homes and balancing my time between them.

However, it’s become increasingly obvious that those world are not as separate as they seem. Ethics, for example, impacts every decision we make. Whether it’s the choice to plagiarize an essay or illegally download a movie, the same ethical decision making process is at work. Likewise, the law (at least theoretically) applies equally as well. A plagiarized research paper can be just as much of a copyright infringement as a pirated application.

If we are going to talk about copyright or plagiarism, we have to look at the broader issue: Content integrity.

Content integrity, as with academic integrity, is a tricky subject because there’s no universal standard as to what is or is not good practice. However, the idea is fairly straightforward: It’s about being honest with the work you create and showing respect for other content creators and their wishes.

But teaching and enforcing content integrity is going to be difficult and, unfortunately, schools and copyright holders alike have been going about it the wrong way for decades.

Teaching Content Integrity

One of the key points that came Dan Ariely’s keynote was that people, by in large, do not avoid unethical behavior because they fear punishment. As he said, people cheat as much as they can justify, making the decision of whether or not to do something unethical an internal process largely independent from outside factors.

Unfortunately, both in schools and in copyright, the emphasis has been on enforcement. Stronger penalties for plagiarists, tougher enforcement for piracy, etc.

There’s been little conversation until recently about why these acts are unethical and why they are enforced so strongly. The reasons for the rules have never been adequately explained and, combined with stricter enforcement, it’s been easy for those subject to the rules to vilify those taking the action. Whether it’s school officials, plagiarism detection services or copyright enforcing bodies, this vilification has made it easier to justify and encourage further unethical acts.

To bring about real change, we need to shift how we approach content integrity and change the message because the one we’ve been using hasn’t been working.

Improving Content Integrity

Since enforcement alone isn’t the answer, teachers and copyright holders alike have to win over hearts and minds. This means instilling a respect for content creators and for the content creation process.

To achieve that, there are several key points that need to be made:

  1. Explanation of Why Content/Content Creation is Important: Why is it important that students write assignments? Why is it important that content be enjoyed legally? These must be concrete and understandable reasons given.
  2. Understanding of Consequences: Since, according to Dan Ariely, individuals often make ethical judgments based on outcomes (For example, a speeder who kills someone is judged more harshly than a speeder who makes it to work without incident), explaining the harm caused by unethical acts is crucial.
  3. Humanization of Those Harmed/Enforcers: Finally, it’s easy to justify and explain an action when it’s against a faceless entity or company. Putting a human face on those impacted or responsible makes an internal justification more difficult.

The reason content integrity is sometimes so difficult to teach or instill is because the reasons for it seem abstract and it seems like a victimless crime. When no person is hurt and there’s no reason for the rules, it’s easy to justify just about anything, regardless of enforcement or the actual impacts.

Excessive enforcement can actually make the problem worse. It can make the enforcers seem “evil” and further aids in internal justification of unethical acts. After all, it’s much easier to tell yourself that something is acceptable if you see the people you are hurting as being worse than you.

Since, as shown above, internal justification is what drives ethical behavior, this is a war that is going to be one not in the courtroom or the disciplinary board room, but rather, in the hearts and minds of those we’re trying to reach.

Bottom Line

For me personally, one of the most interesting moments of the conference came during Dan Ariely’s keynote. He asked the audience how many had illegally downloaded content. Even though it was an academic integrity conference, still about 10% said they had. Those who had also agreed that they didn’t feel bad about their actions.

This was a group of educators who fought against plagiarism and other violations of academic integrity with such great zeal, they likely traveled many miles to attend a conference on it. Yet, they still internally justified the illegal downloading of one or more copyrighted works.

But as the conference showed, academia does not have a monopoly on integrity and ethics. The same ethical process that’s at work in the classroom is at work outside of it. If we are going to change the way people approach content and content creation, we have to start by looking at the larger issue and understanding why people make the choices they do and how they justify their actions.

Fortunately, there are already several great studies on this subject when it comes to copyright, but enforcement alone will not be the answer, in or out of the classroom.

If tactics aren’t changed soon, no amount of enforcement will make a difference. Though plagiarism and copyright may be very different problems, the solutions to them are tied together: Teaching proper content integrity.

Only with a stronger respect for content, content creators and the content creation process can behaviors be changed. While this won’t eliminate plagiarism, piracy, etc. it can make those acts more of ethical outliers. Since everyone’s ethical justification system is different, there will always be people who can justify and, thus, engage in content misuse. However, with proper framing and better understand of the issues, fewer will and those who do will be outliers, rather than the norm.

That, in turn, should be the goal, both in and out of the classroom.

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