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<nettime> Review of Stefan Weber's "The Google-Copy-Paste-Syndrome"
Dennis Deicke on Fri, 19 Jun 2009 23:03:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Review of Stefan Weber's "The Google-Copy-Paste-Syndrome"

Brainless Text Culture and Mickey Mouse Science

Review of Stefan Weber, Das Google-Copy-Paste-Syndrome: Wie Netzplagiate
Ausbildung und Wissen gefährden. Heise Verlag, Hannover: 2009.

By Dennis Deicke

The Google-Copy-Paste-Syndrome: How Web-Plagiarism endangers Education and
Knowledge, written by Stefan Weber, deals with the influence of the
ever-increasing internet use on the prevalent culture of knowledge.
Austrian media scholar Weber states that the soaring spread of the new
media results in a ?text culture without brains.? Stefan Weber decided to
become a plagiarism-scientist after he discovered that a theologian from
Tübingen has written off 90 sites of his own dissertation. Since that he
has collected 14 folders with over 60 cases of plagiarism which build the
base of his work. Internet enhances plagiarism in schools, journalism, the
arts and especially at universities. Weber criticizes current media and
cultural studies programs which ignore the augmented emergence of
plagiarism due to an exaggerated optimism towards new media, thereby
enhancing the problem by spreading their infinitely technophile theories.

The author, who lives and works in Dresden and Salzburg, states that
today?s students follow a process of three steps to create academic texts.
Initially, they Google their topic. Then they copy and paste significant
parts of text found on the Web. Knowing the importance of the outside
appearance they finally layout their produced mosaic. Weber cites American
studies proving that 36% of the students have admitted to have copied
sentences in the web and have pasted it into their academic work. For
Weber this development is the consequence of the omnipresent use of the
internet, because it facilitates the appropriation of texts. The author
argues that by allowing this ?culture without brains? to spread, the
elaborate academic system of reference puts itself in danger. Weber?s
position is that a ?recycling? text culture, which permits people to
plagiarize, will end up in scientific stagnation.
The number of plagiarism cases has increased over the past years and Weber
relates this to the increased employment of the internet. He uses studies
in the United States and the UK, which show that ca. 30% of all students
are plagiarizing. But these numbers also reveal that the source of
plagiarism is more often a printed book than an online text. This weakens
Weber?s argument that a new culture of plagiarism has risen online because
it shows that the writers of these studies mostly wrote off paper books
and that plagiarism is not an online problem in most instances. Though
that does not debilitate his thesis, saying that the culture of
appropriating texts (no matter of what kind of source) without
comprehending them derives from extensive internet use. Because it is
still possible that using the internet lowers the threshold to begin
Weber admits that there are no empirical data that prove a positive
influence of the Web 2.0 on the number of plagiarism cases. In spite of
that he claims that there is a positive influence on the culture of
producing texts without reference. This ?sampling culture? is enhanced by
the free licensing ideas existing in the internet. Weber traceably argues
that the idea of free licensing derives from the development of software
and should not be transferred unconcerned to a knowledge culture that is
based on texts.
Weber asserts that content is not the most important thing on the Web 2.0
because it provides the user with the technical preconditions to put up
websites easily (with software like media wiki). After creating a new site
it needs to be filled with content that is usually copy-pasted from
elsewhere. I hold the view that this argument is not very convincing.
Concluding that the existence of a technology that facilitates the
production of content results in plagiarism seems to be too critical.
Logically, it should be the other way around. Because technical
investments are marginal, there are more resources available to create
content. Today, nobody would assert that Gutenberg?s invention of the
printing press caused intellectual decline. Additionally, Weber tries to
prove the proximity between Web 2.0 and plagiarism by stating that plenty
of web portals and social networks are copies of American originals. But
claiming that users of such a copy are more likely to plagiarize appears
to be a bit farfetched, too.
Weber also mentions further reasons for the increase of plagiarism that go
beyond blaming only the internet and new media. For example, he mentions
that some universities do not teach introductions into academic working
methods or teach them wrongly. Another interesting reason noted by Weber
is that studying at universities has become a sort of CV management.
Studying itself has become less important while the managing of achieving
certain titles by simulating competence is becoming the main task for
students. But he also claims that some students are lazy or too dumb and
therefore plagiarize and he tries to prove these assertions by showing a
few examples from internet forums citing students who are searching a way
to reduce their work. But lazy students have always existed and giving
single forum-extracts is neither a way to show that this really leads to
plagiarism nor does it show that students of today are lazier because of
the internet.
Furthermore, Weber gives a good indication to what is often forgotten when
we talk about Google and its official aim to ?organize the information of
the world.? Weber mentions that Google just organizes the world?s
information. So, if we only rely on knowledge transferred by Google, we
will probably miss out on a lot. Weber also doubts the benefits of
Google?s book scanning project Google Books. The availability of a lot of
texts online makes it possible to penetrate them by scanning and
superficial browsing and as a consequence this could reduce reading
competence significantly because it is just not necessary anymore to read
and understand texts as a whole. Thus the scanning project of Google could
be a real threat for the book as a medium. But he also criticizes Google
Books because it enables plagiarism by supplying texts, although they
could not be marked and copy-pasted, the texts could at least be written
off. But that is not a problem of Google Books or the internet, writing
off has always been possible?also from paper books.
Weber points out that the culture of plagiarism also spills over to
journalism and arts. He complaints about journalists who use information
they gather from Google to simulate their competence in regards of the
issues they are dealing with. In this way they do no longer have to do
classical investigation. But for me the question is if this changes the
facts that are provided to the audience. If the information found on
Google is the same as the information the journalist received by local
research it does not change what kind of knowledge reaches the audience
eventually. But Weber points out an interesting effect as a consequence of
the use of Google by journalists. They lose their function as Gatekeepers
which is now executed by the Google-algorithm.
According to Stefan Weber, the intensified usage of Google and Wikipedia
builds the base for a generation of students that will be incapable to
read and comprehend texts. This principle of not capturing full content
and just using texts partially and superficially causes problems for the
academic system. In Weber?s view a new culture of simulating competence
emerged that has started to replace the prevalent culture of academic
practices and knowledge. This ?culture of hypocrisy,? as Weber calls it,
flourishes in a milieu of technology- and media optimism that can be found
in media studies circles. That is another important and striking aspect of
Weber?s book. He consistently criticizes media- and cultural studies
because he is of the opinion that they follow a paradigm that does not
leave any space for a critical opinion on the increasing digitalization.
He refers the uncritical position existing in the media studies to certain
myths dominating them. One myth, for example, is the hidden technical
determinism, which means that technology is always emphasized as something
mankind has to follow. Weber does not like this idea of technology as an
almost auto-poietic system that operates completely independent of human
beings. His opinion is that we should not forget that humans produce and
control the technology. Another example is the myth, most central to
Weber, which says that current media studies consistently disagree with
all positions that take negative consequences of New Media usage into
Weber criticizes cultural studies and the media itself for supporting this
development with something Weber calls ?bullshit PR.? He uses a definition
of bullshit from Harry G. Frankfurt who called it a discursive strategy to
maintain everything you want to. In Weber?s opinion cultural studies and
constructivism provide an academic background for the new text culture of
plagiarism and stupidity. In Weber?s view constructivism builds a fertile
ground for plagiarism by questioning the idea of an author.
Constructivists legitimize plagiarism by declaring the idea of authorship
to a social construct. The cultural studies supply the ?culture of
hypocrisy? because they do something, which Weber calls ?Mickey Mouse
science?. That means that during the last years a lot of cultural
scientists did qualitative researches that in Weber?s eyes did not gain
any knowledge and were open for any kind of result or ?bullshit.? By using
?soft? methods and choosing research themes of which the outcome is
already clear the cultural studies in their today?s shape support the
emerging change of our knowledge culture.
Moreover Stefan Weber claims that the extensive use of the internet is a
menace to our existing language culture. He is of the opinion that trends
like ?weblish? and ?cyber talk? can become a real danger for the written
language, especially in science. He accuses media and cultural studies
again for being to optimistic towards enhancing mediatisation and for
ignoring studies that show negative outcomes of it. Weber also emphasizes
on the education of adolescents who are confronted with an growing amount
of media. His opinion is that this has more negative implications than
positive ones. Furthermore, he mentions the lack of critical emancipation
of the new media users. During the 90s there was the hope of
democratization and informational independence that would result in a
critical publicity, but these ideas have vanished and Weber concludes that
we mostly use new media for its own sake.
Stefan Weber?s book is an interesting work, which encourages the reader to
think about the increasing spread of new media in all parts of our lives.
He warns us to keep in mind that digitalization and mediatisation can also
have negative outcomes, which should be examined by media scientists.
Weber tries to fight for appropriate methods in the academic world, which
are threatened by the increased 'Googlization.' Unfortunately, Weber
weakens his own argument because in my opinion he does not follow the
strict academic demand he postulates throughout his own book. The whole
work is written very emotionally and the reader sometimes gets the
impression that it is Weber?s personal campaign against plagiarism. His
criticism on cultural studies and constructivism appears polemical and it
does not seem to follow scientific rules too strictly, although his points
may be advisable. According to this, he often uses single examples he has
found somewhere in the internet. He for example demonstrates the laziness
of students with one extract of a forum. A further example of this
practice is his proof of the decline of language, Weber shows extracts
from the internet showing gross samples of ?Weblish? and then concludes
that this is a severe threat to the written culture. At another point he
criticizes mobile phones because they provide a good opportunity to cheat
during exams. This seems to be a bit pedantic, cheating has always
happened and before mobile phones existed students used cheat sheets. So
this is not a good example of how new media can be a threat to our
knowledge and academic system.
In spite of this criticism, The Google-Copy-Paste Syndrome is an alarming
book that reminds us to stay critical towards new media. Because, as
Stefan Weber states correctly, by being too optimistic and uncritical, the
scientific world looses its power of interpretation and leaves the
cultural development regarding media to the technology and entertainment
industry. The book is a like a thorn in the side of media studies telling
us not let go our capability of criticism concerning internet,
digitalization and new media.

An interview with Stefan Weber in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

List of Stefan Weber?s publications:

An interesting article concerning this issue by NicholasChar:

German Wikipedia site about Stefan Weber:

Heise website about ?The Google Copy Paste Syndrom?:

Institute of Network Cultures
HvA Interactive Media, room 05A20
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Institute of Network Cultures
HvA Interactive Media, room 05A20
PO BOX 1025
NL-1000 BA Amsterdam

dennis {AT} networkcultures.org
t: +31 20 5951865 / 1866
f: +31 20 5951840

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