The Problem with Plagiarism



Graphic Design & Visual Art


  • ethics, design process, design methologies


This study examines the concept of visual plagiarism within a contemporary cultural context shaped by postmodern design theory and the digital information age, as a challenging concern for tertiary level graphic design education.

This paper does not condone plagiarism, however it asks design lecturers to reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions that students operate in an unambiguous environment of 'wrong' and 'right' when it comes to the concept of visual plagiarism. It seems that graphic design students find it increasingly difficult to navigating the grey areas between plagiarism, appropriation, homage, inspiration, 'referencing, coincidence and 'accident'.

Disturbing as this may be at an ethical level, it is perhaps not surprising when one considers the contemporary world in which we live and work. This environment is actively shaped by postmodern ideas of appropriation, digital 'sampling', digital reproduction and the Internet experience as an infinite repository (resource) of textual and visual information. The 'remix' realm within which students operate reinforces postmodern concepts of appropriation and affect students‘ understanding of and attitude towards plagiarism. Furthermore, in a postmodern design context, the term plagiarism can be problematic, as there seems little consensus as to where the lines can be drawn between 'borrowing' or 'referencing' (postmodern appropriation or pastiche) and 'stealing' (plagiarism).

This paper briefly describes and contextualises terms relating to the topic, including pastiche, parody, and appropriation. Secondly, the features of contemporary culture including issues such as digital reproduction and the Internet experience are examined insofar as they can be seen to construct, encourage or support understandings relating to plagiarism. As a qualitative study this paper assimilates information from a variety of literature sources including Fredric Jameson‘s work on the postmodern concept of 'pastiche' to map out terms and concepts which provide a theoretical foundation.

A critical evaluation of the theories and concepts surrounding visual plagiarism and of the complex, often-contradictory contexts within which students operate, provides insight into the challenges faced, as a first step approach towards addressing the problem in a pre-emptive rather than punitive manner.

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