If you’ve read my blog before, you know that academic honesty is very important to me, both for the sake of developing personal integrity, and for the sake of recognizing and valuing the work of others.

The fluid, fluctuating nature of online communication makes it hard to consistently define and uphold academic honesty. It’s hard to define what respect of intellectual property looks like on a blog, for example, or a website, or a MySpace page.

Should all bloggers be required to use MLA citations when they quote a fellow blogger? Do permalinks make it acceptable to reproduce an entire post or article on your own site? What about images?

These questions can be overwhelming. One of the dangers of online communication is that too much information–and too little–can lead to carelessness and apathy. “No one told me I had to cite that image from Google Images. There’s no guide for quoting a website on another website, so I didn’t bother.”

Personal responsibility is out of vogue in our era. We like step-by-step instructions, and if the warning label “hot” isn’t on the cup of coffee, we have every right to legal restitution.

I am as guilty as the next person. In writing this blog, I have attempted to develop my own system of ethical use guidelines for quoting and “borrowing” others’ content. When I quote a blog or online article, I use the “blockquote” feature, and I include a permalink to the source. When I use an image to supplement my text, I link the image back to its source rather than to my site.

Is that the best way to do it? Probably not. Could I do more? Yes. Should I? I’m not sure. But am I freed of responsibility because there is no one right way to do it? Absolutely not.

Cracking down on Internet piracy and protecting copyrights have cost the writing, publishing, film making, and music industries enormous effort, and have done little to stem the flood. Smart people circumvent the system every day. Smart people will continue to find new ways around the new protections designed by other smart people.

The only way that real change will occur is when smart people take responsibility and choose to be honest people.

Unfortunately, if that sounds over-simplified, it is. Our postmodern view that all ethical systems are equal has made it easy to justify downloading pirated music (“Hey, I wasn’t the one who posted it!”) or leaving out the quotations marks once in a while (“It’s only Wikipedia; I could have written the same thing.”).

It’s a slippery spiral, isn’t it?

Relativism is only attractive until someone else’s ethical system interferes with us; until we write something and see it spread over the Web without our permission; until we cry “not fair” and no one listens.

So where do we go from here?

In blogging, just as much as in college classrooms, I think it is worth considering what honesty means, on what it is based, and how we erode it, or build it up, in each choice we make and webpage we open.


2 Responses to

  1. Jordan says:

    We ought to consider that there are different standards and conventions for different genres, and compliance with these in different settings doesn’t necessarily equal academic dishonesty. I think it is entirely appropriate to link and blockquote (and not footnote) in a standard blogpost, even if it’s a kind of academic or intellectual blog.

    We should also note how standards have evolved, developed, and changed over time. Take a look at texts in the sixteenth century and you are often fortunate to find a marginal note referring to the original author, much less detailed textual information about the source.

  2. jenecrit says:

    Agreed. Standards are different, and intent plays a role in how “fair use” looks in practice, as long as “different” doesn’t become “nonexistent.”

    As standards have changed (an in-depth comparison would be fascinating) over time, does that mean we have become more honest, or simply more particular or more grasping? I don’t know much about the history of intellectual property rights, but I’d like to know more. It certainly has changed; Shakespeare wouldn’t have been able to pay the licensing fees otherwise, from all the plots and characters he appropriated!

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