New rules

19 Jun

Stthomasaquinas In medieval scholasticism (where our university system originated), all knowledge required prior authority. So the Bible and Aristotle (via Thomas Aquinas) were the legitimate sources of knowledge, and citing them lent authority to an argument. To this extent, all thinking was borrowed from others, though plagiarism was avoided by citing the source.

With the Enlightenment, new thinking was encouraged, though Newton famously said that if he was able to see a little further it was because he was ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.

But what are the rules in the Googlesphere? Academic publishing still emphasises authority (at the expense of speed and currency); online sources emphasise speed, sometimes at the expense of accuracy and authority. Among blogs, links are everything: ‘I link therefore I am’. And isn’t public relations practice a form of sanctioned plagiarism, freely distributing copyright-free ideas, images and information that will most often not be cited?

What are our students to make of this? What are the new rules? My colleague Sally Brown is wrestling with this and has a useful commentary on the situation. I’ll only add two thoughts: if Google makes it easier for students to cheat, then the same tools make it easier for academics to detect this. So we have to get smarter. And developing new assignments each year reduces the chances of there being ‘off the shelf’ answers available to students.

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