When we talk about writing, it is important to understand how to write ethically, that is, with an eye to what is morally acceptable. To develop an intuitive understanding of the nature of ethical concerns in writing, it helps to start with the proposition that “information has value.” This means that your writing and any texts you create have value, and so do the works of others. One example of a text with a substantial monetary value is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein, which has earned profits for the author, publishing house, editors, printers, film studios, actors, etc. associated with the many written and audiovisual texts that have been developed from that novel. Academic texts have value in a number of ways, from being research that other companies will pay for to earning authors jobs and promotions. For students, the value of a paper is often tied to what type of grade the student will earn for it.
Once we understand that information has value, it’s a bit easier to understand what it is morally acceptable to do with it. If we accept that a term paper has value for a student because of the grade it will earn that student in a given class, then it is clear that someone else should not change the paper without the author’s knowledge, nor should someone steal the paper and turn it in as their own work.
Linked to ethical concerns about information are legal ones. Much of the work done at universities is governed not only by the ethics of academia, but by the law as well, particularly as a form of intellectual property. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), describes intellectual property this way:
Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce. IP is protected in law by, for example, patents, copyright and trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create. By striking the right balance between the interests of innovators and the wider public interest, the IP system aims to foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish.
For writing courses, copyright is generally the most significant of these types of intellectual property.
Again breaking apart the idea of intellectual property helps create a more intuitive understanding about how to fairly use and create information. Note here the term “property,” and think about some of society’s laws and concepts concerning property. Property belongs to someone; it has an owner. It can be bought and sold, and it can be stolen. These things are all true of intellectual property, as well.
Apart from the legal protections afforded to intellectual property, there are contextual ethics that apply to different writing situations. What is acceptable in one situation might not be in another. For example, let’s say your roommate has a standard grocery list every week. One week, you are grocery shopping and you copy the list, but you do not say that your roommate was the original author or cite her shopping list. Is this unethical, given the context? No, is not, given the standard ethical principles of our society, and, presumably, the ethics of your relationship with your roommate. However, say your roommate took the same class that you are now taking and you use parts of her term paper in your own without giving her credit or indicating which parts of the text you are quoting. Is this unethical? Yes, because this action violates the ethics of the academic community.
In this chapter we are going to focus mostly upon the ethical principles of the academic community, particularly those concerning plagiarism. Then we will also look at how to properly give credit to others through citation.
- Association of College and Research Libraries, Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (Chicago: American Library Association, 2016). ↵
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1937). ↵
- WIPO, “What is Intellectual Property?,” accessed July 3, 2019, https://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/. ↵
An intellectual property right whereby the rights holder has the right to copy and distribute, among other rights, original works of authorship that are literary, musical, artistic, or choreographic. There are additional categories of material that are covered as well.