Thursday, 23 September 2010

By what age do children recognise that plagiarism is wrong?

To view plagiarism as an adult does, a child must combine several pieces of a puzzle: they need to understand that not everyone has access to all ideas; that people can create their own ideas; and that stealing an idea, like stealing physical property, is wrong.

There's been plenty of research on children's understanding of physical property ownership, which has shown that a rudimentary understanding is already in place by age two. Now in the first ever systematic study of its kind, Kristina Olson and Alex Shaw at Yale have investigated children's understanding of the ownership of ideas.

Across three studies, Olson and Shaw presented children aged between three and eleven with vignettes and puppet videos in which two characters either both came up with their own idea for what to draw in art class, or one character copied what the other one had drawn. By age five to six, children showed less liking for characters who copied and rated them as 'more bad'. Crucially, they gave copying as their justification for these negative appraisals. 'These results demonstrate a relatively sophisticated understanding of ideas as early as age five years,' the researchers said.

By contrast, three- to four-year-olds did not rate characters who copied as any less likeable or any more bad than characters who came up with their own ideas. In a control condition, children of this age gave negative ratings to characters who stole physical property, thus showing that the the null result for stealing ideas wasn't because the children didn't understand the rating scale or weren't paying attention.

Future research is needed to find out if children younger than four don't understand the idea of original ideas or if they don't yet recognise that to steal ideas is wrong (or both). It's also not yet clear what drives the development of understanding in this area - is it a reflection of cognitive development or does it perhaps have to do with exposure to formal rules about copying at school. 'Our hope is that our idea about ideas is unique and will motivate future research,' the researchers concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgOlson, K., and Shaw, A. (2010). ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00993.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Jarrett, dear readers,

To be honest, I wasn't really surprised by the
critical age that was discovered in this study.

Children develop an understanding that everybody
does not know what they know on average between
the ages of four and five, which was discovered
about three decades ago. This topic is typically
examined under the heading of theory of mind
(ToM) using tasks such as the Sally-Anne test
(Wimmer & Perner, 1983).

The combination with a moral understanding of
stealing somebody else's ideas is of course what
makes this experiment unique. Future research is
likely to reveal how ethical cognition ties in
with ToM. One could, however, also debate to
what extent this is represented by stating that
someone is "more bad," as opposed to a practical
understanding of, say, copyright legislation.

Steffen (Assistant Psychologist)

Anonymous said...

To what extent is "stealing ideas" a Western culture concept? Does a child's cultural heritage influence their thinking on this? (I recently watched an episode of Ni Hao Kailan with my daughter in which copying ideas was presented as a form of flattery). And, by the way, as a former college professor, most college students don't seem to "get" the concept of plagiarism.

Shoe said...

Oh, college students get it. They're just scared and have no sense of self-efficacy. They do not believe they are in school to learn. They are convinced they are in school to "prove themselves" to the teacher, the admissions officer at the next degree up, and the employer looking at their transcript.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to echo the second commenter on both counts. The idea of "intellectual ownership" even more so than property ownership is a cultural value. Unlike more biologically-driven forms of morality (even very young kids know that it's wrong to hit someone, even if it's not against the rules), something like this has really got to be learned. In fact, I think that it's a cultural value that is on the decline even in Western culture, especially now with the ubiquity of the internet and the way in which content has been remixed. There are subtleties in what constitutes copying and what makes it bad that have varied even in the last couple of decades. Twenty years ago, songs that sampled other pieces of music were rare, and some people accused musicians who did this frequently of being devoid of original ideas. Now it's standard practice and recognized as a form of creativity in its own right.

That said, it seems like kids are taught that copying is bad (especially at school) at around kindergarten. Yet some college students seem to have trouble with the idea that cutting and pasting information from the internet and submitting it in a paper to a professor is unacceptable. Even if I don't necessarily agree with copyright as a moral issue, I can't help but think - c'mon guys, you know better.

James Love said...

Plagiarism is one thing, ideas are another. I would not promote the notion that "not everyone has access to all ideas." Indeed, the opposite would seem true. Academic scholars are in fact often encouraged to cite and use of the ideas of others, in research papers. However, true plagiarism, or passing off a work as original or unique when it is not, can usefully be discouraged.

Crosbie Fitch said...

Note that copyright is not pejorative against the natural act of copying that is to be embraced, but against doing so without permission of the current holder of this commercial privilege (a reproduction monopoly).

Plagiarism also has nothing against copying per se, only against presenting another's work as one's own.

To learn is to copy. Indeed the word 'learn' means to tread in another's footsteps - to copy their example.

Any notion that copying is intrinsically wrong or immoral is very recent, presumably deduced from widespread infringement of copyright and increasingly draconian enforcement measures.

Ben said...

I'm with Fitch on this. It isn't copying which plagiarism decries, but rather the presentation of a copy as an original. I'd be interested to see further research into this area to examine whether children have any arguments for why plagiarism is wrong and why the plagiarist character is 'bad'; it might be that they're simply parroting a current media theme or it might be some specific aspect of plagiarism which children view as immoral, perhaps the duplicity of it or the way it denies a reward to the genuine originator.

Unknown said...

Good point Fitch and others about the important difference between copying per se (not bad) and claiming others ideas as one's own - plagiarism, which is morally bad. I don't think the scenarios used in this study really made that distinction, which seems to be a shortcoming. However, the research did show that the children's disliking of copiers was based on more than disliking the lack of novelty (a 'coincidence' condition, in which characters drew the same pic by chance, didn't provoke the same kind of negative ratings from the kids).

Crosbie Fitch said...

If we are expecting novelty (that we highly value) then we are disappointed when we are presented with something that is not novel to us.

If we are expecting an original or true copy of a work (that we highly value) then we are disappointed when we are presented with an abridged or bowdlerised version, especially if we only find out much later.

If a friend presents some novel work of theirs to us and we subsequently find it is not their work, we are justly disappointed at having been deceived and our estimation of that person diminishes.

The act of copying what we have been shown or given is perfectly natural and wholesome. It is only the possible dishonesty on the part of the copier that can be the natural offence against any of us.

Indeed, the unnatural privilege of copyright is an offence against our natural right to copy, our cultural liberty - an instrument of injustice.

"Human rights originate in Nature, thus, rights cannot be granted via political charter, because that implies that rights are legally revocable, hence, would be privileges:"

It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few . . . They . . . consequently are instruments of injustice.

The only natural right against copying is an individual's privacy, their natural ability to exclude others from the works in their private possession.

Ben said...

I disagree with you here Fitch (and, evidently, with the Rights of Man). It makes no sense to say that we have a right unless others have a duty to safeguard that right e.g. I only have my right to life because you have a duty to not kill me. If rights were naturally bestowed then so too would duties have to be naturally bestowed in order to make the rights mean anything.

I suppose the argument could be made that if you were to violate my right (let's say, to private property) then you haven't reneged on your implicit duty which is counterpart to the violated right (a duty to leave my private property alone) because unless such a duty is made explicit (by a charter of rights (or, more accurately but less euphemistically, a charter of duties)) then you have no such duty. But this argument would pose a problem when it came time to argue in favour of natural rights: unless your right is explicit then in what sense do you have such a right? Furthermore, if your right is endlessly violated (as we could probably rightly presume a right to private property would be in the state of nature) with no provision for its protection other than your ability to coerce others into behaving in accordance with the right then in what sense do you have a 'natural' right afforded by anything other than your prowess and ability to force others to behave as if you have rights?

I have really never understood, nor seen the logical necessity for, the concept of natural rights.

Crosbie Fitch said...

Ben, our natural rights are simply our natural abilities or powers that we have and need for survival. They are not duties, nor loans of power granted to us by kings, but self-evident. They do not derive from government, but precede it. It is the government that a society lends its power to in order for the rights of all to be protected, equally, harmoniously.

We have a natural right to our lives, the integrity of our bodies, the space we occupy and possess, the truth of our actions, and the liberty of action.

We have sung each other's songs, told each other's stories, even copied each other's cave paintings, since time immemorial. The law granting the prohibition of such cultural liberty is an egregious departure from the protection of individuals' primordial rights.

More on Natural Rights here: Natural Law and Natural Rights

Anonymous said...

Push polling much?

"Stealing an idea, like stealing physical property, is wrong"

It is not possible to steal an idea. You can not rob someone of an idea because they still have it.

John said...

Shame their paper is only available if you are a member of an institution. Wiley don't want knowledge spreading to the general public it seems. It makes no sense in this day and age to keep research locked away when publishing is so easy now.

Why do academic researchers even allow this situation to happen to their work now? They want as many people to read it as possible surely?

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