Philosophy on Plagiarism: Leaving the Commons Open

In their preface to Commonwealth, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri refer to the “common” as everything in our material world: “—the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty” that we share together as humans; but they also state, “We consider the common also and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth” (viii). Hardt and Negri’s stance on what constitutes the common is very much aligned with what I consider research and information utilized in the composition classroom. Our writing practices involve both social interaction (conversation) and social production (composition). Nonetheless, students engage with the texts in their own discourse communities in ways that directly oppose that of the university’s. Because the university is a space where specific rules and regulations guide how we interact with our texts, students are positioned in a verifiably tenuous position of mitigating between legality and propriety.

Let me explain. When we consider texts or information as property, we assume they are “owned” by an individual or an institution. Hardt and Negri further elaborate, “With the blinders of today’s dominant ideologies, however, it is difficult to see the common, even though it is all around us. Neoliberal government policies throughout the world have sought in recent decades to privatize the common, making cultural products—for example, information, ideas, and even species of animals and plants—into private property” (viii). This view is how we have appropriated research and information within the academic institution. In many ways, this positions students in discursive opposition to what they know about knowledge. Students come to the university interacting with texts in a way more reflective of their social relationships. Most of them are aware of the normalized practice in the Internet called file sharing—a practice heavily censored by the invention of copyright infringement. Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, proclaims,

The century ended with the copyright middlemen pushing through a new law in the United States called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. For the first time, the copyright industry managed to introduce intermediary liability — as in making people liable in a court of law for merely carrying a signal which is broadcast by somebody else. Just like if you put up a public wall, and would become responsible for posters that other people put up on it: Not sane anywhere, but this isn’t about sanity, it is about regulatory captures and enshrining the continued profit of monopolists into books of law.  (Falkvinge 75-6).

Perhaps it is easy to see how Falkvinge’s conception of copyright mirrors that of the academic institution’s view on citation. What does it mean that many of our students are aware of these practices of culture from the Internet—where access to information is nearly seamless?

Again, it is not terribly difficult to see that many students do not understand what it means to cite authors of texts and give credit where “credit is due”. Their worlds are that of speech (where we rarely site discourse origins) and hyperlinks. Yet, the institution expects them to come ready to interact under the presupposition that citation is a given. When students fail to know this, they face punishment for plagiarism. This way of thinking, on the part of the institution, is a question of ethics and literacy.

Kathryn Valentine tells us in her essay “Plagiarism as Literacy Practice: Recognizing and Rethinking Ethical Binaries several things much like I have reiterated from Falkvinge and Hardt and Negri: “What I would like to suggest is that plagiarism is a literacy practice; plagiarism is something that people do with reading and writing” (89). She continues, “Given that plagiarism involves social relationships, attitudes, and values as much as it involves texts and rules of citation, I think that we can better recognize the work that our students present to us if we also recognize that this work involves negotiating social relationships, attitudes, and values” (90). I would like to formally pronounce that my philosophy on plagiarism involves doing just this. I feel it is imperative that we understand how our students respond and interact with texts equally as much as the university expects them to know the rules of citation.

If we are encouraging our students to become literate to all the functions of academic life, we must be aware of whom they are as they walk through our doors. This imperative is what Valentine calls the “work of negotiation identity for students” (90). Students face acquiring literacy of academic discourse—which includes citation practices and standards; why would we not work to be literate of the practices of file sharing and open commons they bring with them? Those of us in Composition know that our world is comprised of many discourses meshing and clashing together at every moment. It may certainly be in our best interests to help students negotiate with their acculturation to the university by negotiating our own conceptions of what it means to acquire knowledge.

I am not arguing that we abolish citation practices within the institution. However, I am pushing forth an agenda that repositions our understanding of our students’ identities. We can begin to understand them by becoming literate of their own uses of texts in their lives. Sharon Crowley asked us to do a similar thing in her “Ethic of Service” in the Journal of Advanced Composition: “Writing on the other hand, names the practice that we study and teach. This is not just a matter of switching terminology, but of thinking of our students as writers, rather than persons in need of linguistic fluency or corrected habits of punctuation” (237). To this, I would like to add citation to the list. Crowley’s ethical vision reposition students as writers. My assertion here is to encourage us to think of students as thinkers as well. That means that we become literate to the practices they employ to gain common knowledge in their lives.


Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. “Composition’s Ethic of Service, the Universal Requirement, and the Discourse of Student Need.” Journal of Advanced Composition 15.2 (1994), 227-239., 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.

Falkvinge, Rick. “History of Copyright.” No Safe Harbor: Essays About Pirate Politics. United States Pirate Party, Creative Commons, n.d. pdf, 68-76.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. Print.

Valentine, Kathryn. “Plagiarism as Literacy Practice: Recognizing and Rethinking Ethical Binaries.” CCC 58.1 (Sept. 2006), 89-109. National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 21 Oct. 2012.


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