Plagiarize This!

Why is brazenly putting one's name on a text that someone else wrote repugnant? Should it be? Scott McLemee explores the issue.

December 6, 2019

A few years back, I noticed what looked like a potentially interesting article on the table of contents page of an open-access scholarly journal. I attempted to download it. Instead the link opened up a statement from the editors of the journal explaining that they had removed it upon learning that the article in question was plagiarized from another paper, which they duly cited, with apologies to the original author.

It was not hard to get a look at the deleted paper via the Wayback Machine, so I decided to compare it with the earlier publication to determine the nature and extent of the copying. The effort was over almost as soon as it began: the individual claiming authorship had taken the original text, changed the title, then submitted it as his own work.

Anyone caught plagiarizing has probably done so before and gotten away with it. In as brazen an instance as this, the probability was around 100 percent. I conducted an in-depth analysis of his publication history that required several minutes. The first sentence of each article, pasted into a search engine, invariably turned up its previous incarnation.

It was astounding, but mostly it was depressing. I do not recall the author's institutional affiliation, only that he was in a developing country. Most of "his" writings appeared in International Quarterly of Arts, Sciences and Refrigeration Engineering-type journals that were clearly the work of predatory publishers. There didn't seem much point to alerting the editors to the plagiarism they had helped perpetrate. (Best-case outcome: they'd have offered to remove the offending article for a fee.) Little doubt but that the scofflaw scholar is still out there, working on a masterpiece, possibly, or at least putting his name on one.

Why is the thought repugnant? Should it be?

"In academia," writes Agnes Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, in an essay at The Point magazine's website, "the immorality of plagiarism is one of the few principles everyone converges on. Many of us are prepared to debate the fine points of questions such as 'Under what circumstances it is okay to torture someone?', but only against a background of unquestioned agreement that representing other peoples’ ideas or phrasings as your own is, always and forever, evil." Commit that sin, she says, and the full force of academe's power to discipline and punish will come down on you.

That claim is not indisputable. Fairly common reactions to even clear-cut instances of plagiarism include embarrassment, blame shifting to underlings and the acceptance of "my notes must have gotten mixed into my draft!" and other standard excuses. Plagiarism tarnishes a lot more careers than it destroys. But the very intensity of the institutional taboo that Callard emphasizes may also account for the nervousness and avoidance reactions that sometimes accompany violations of it. Were the Modern Language Association's definition of plagiarism as "presenting another person’s ideas, information, expressions, or entire work as one’s own” too strictly enforced, who should 'scape whipping?

Callard argues -- in tandem with Brian L. Frye's recent "Plagiarize This Paper" -- that the fierce moralism is in large part a reaction to a lack of legal sanction against plagiarism. Reproducing a copyrighted text without the author's permission violates copyright law. Doing so while replacing the author's name with your own is definitely plagiarism. But these are different offenses, and only the violation of property rights counts as illegal.

Cribbing someone's ideas, turns of phrase and bibliographical citations for your own use without attributing them is plagiarism, as well. The plagiarized author may well feel indignant at losing (as Callard says) "respect, gratitude, admiration, eternal life in historical memory" and other such nonmonetizable values. But the violation is: (a) harder to prove and (b) not a matter for the courts. It is unfair but not illegal.

The indifference -- not just of the courts but of most people outside academe, and not a few within it -- makes the injustice harder to bear. "We labor to produce knowledge and share it with everyone," as Frye, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, puts it, "whether or not they asked." A little gratitude would be appreciated. But no! And then someone comes along and nabs that precious insight or long-neglected reference and pretends you don't exist.

Callard and Frye plainly regard the effects of possessive individualism on intellectual life to be debilitating and possibly morbid. They suggest that a different ethos is possible. As Frye puts it:

Even on those rare occasions when a scholarly work actually introduces a novel idea, scholars do not and should not own those ideas, not even to the limited extent of a right to compel attribution. We should be humble. Scholarship is the gift we provide to each other and the public. More often than not, it is a gift better loved by the giver than the recipient. Attribution is also a gift. We should accept it graciously and thankfully when provided. But we should never demand it, or expect others to demand it on our behalf. After all, good scholars copy, but great scholars steal.

I don't know how to respond except to say that their essays are stimulating, like an afternoon in a minefield.


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