Issue 06
Words by

Who cares about plagiarism?

21st January 2022
12 Mins

Plagiarism is unforgivable in academia but it’s not plagiarism itself that should trouble us. It’s carelessness and a lack of originality.

“Wussies and pussies” – those are the only kinds of people who care about plagiarism, according to Bob Dylan. That was his response to an interviewer who asked him about some rather suspicious similarities between lyrics on his 2001 album Love and Theft (pun intended, perhaps?) and a Japanese true-crime book from the ’90s. And it’s not just the lyrics: a side-by-side comparison makes clear that the music of many of the songs on that record, and other Dylan albums, is nearly identical to that of some old blues numbers (and that’s far from the only kind of plagiarism of which Dylan has been accused).

This kind of thing is “part of the folk tradition”, Dylan said. “We all do it”. And he’s right, in a sense: art, and culture more generally, is a big, complex soup of ideas, any of which can be seized on at any time and amplified, altered or improved.

But musicians do still get in hot water for plagiarism – from other artists and their lawyers, if not the public (Dylan’s lifting of musical ideas from long-dead bluesmen might explain why it’s never been a big deal for him). George Harrison, Dylan’s sometime collaborator, ended up embroiled in decades-long legal proceedings and paid damages of $2m in today’s money after he accidentally borrowed the backbone of his song “My Sweet Lord” from “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons. There are similar examples from artists as throwaway as Robin Thicke (for plagiarising Marvin Gaye) or as acclaimed as Radiohead (plagiarising The Hollies) and Lana del Rey (plagiarising that same plagiarised Radiohead song).

So culture is both a freewheeling world where anyone steals anything from anyone – everything is a remixand it has rules about who can copy what: there’s a maddening inconsistency between what counts as plagiarism versus “quotation” or “influence” or “tribute”, depending on the context (and let’s not even get into the complicated world of musical sampling rights).

This is all rather different from my own field, academia. There’s no “folk tradition” in universities, nor any ambiguity: you have to cite your sources, and if you don’t you’re in big trouble. Not only do professors put major efforts into deterring their students from copying each other’s work, they themselves are under major pressure not to plagiarise in their published papers. A glance at the website Retraction Watch will show you that plagiarism frequently causes academic papers to be retracted from the literature, with the authors’ reputations ruined. According to the University of Kentucky law professor Brian Frye:

“A plagiarist is an academic pariah, a transgressor of the highest law of the profession, the embodiment of the “great deceiver,” who leads everyone astray. […] Plagiarism tarnishes the scholarship itself and leaves it forever suspect. If the purpose of scholarship is dowsing for truth, then the plagiarist is a liar who poisons the well from which everyone draws.”

Although many would agree, you might have detected a tinge of sarcastic hyperbole – and indeed, in the quoted paper, Frye makes the contrarian argument that academics should stop caring at all about plagiarism. They shouldn’t mind if people use their ideas, or even their exact words, without citing them; rules against plagiarism do the reader no favours and exist merely to shore up the ego of the author. “Academic plagiarism norms”, Frye writes, “are primarily an inefficient and illegitimate form of extra-legal academic rent-seeking that should be ignored.” And although he doesn’t quite call those who disagree with him “wussies and pussies”, he does disparagingly refer to the “plagiarism police”, which includes anyone who tries to identify academic plagiarism and somehow punish the plagiarist.

You’ve got to respect the boldness of a position like this – an appeal to give academia its own Dylanesque borrowing tradition – even if you disagree. I do disagree, but before I tell you why, let me add another couple of pro-plagiarism arguments to buttress Frye’s.

The first is that a more relaxed attitude to plagiarism is all part of the direction in which science is moving. These days, research increasingly emphasizes collaboration and teamwork (think Large Hadron Collider) and is far less a story of the lone genius making big discoveries in their secret lab. Some have even argued against the awarding of Nobel Prizes for science, since they can only be given to a small number of people, perpetuating the wrong idea of modern research. On this view, a focus on the individual ownership of ideas is an anachronism; a relic of how science used to be done.

Not only that, but there’s a whole movement that’s focused on wresting scientific findings from the grip of flawed, ego-driven academics and sharing them with the world – namely, the Open Science movement. The movement pushes for Open Data (sharing datasets online for anyone to use) and Open Access (making scientific papers accessible to all for free) – so we might wonder why it doesn’t take a step further and argue for a system where concepts and theories, and even their verbal expressions, can be shared without worrying too much about who came up with them. Such a system – call it “Open Ideas” – might live up to the sociologist Robert Merton’s norm of “communalism”, where science is owned by the community rather than any individual person.

If you’re worried about the deception involved in plagiarism, you needn’t be: if we put Frye – or Bob Dylan – in charge of academia, we might develop a different culture, where plagiarism simply wasn’t a crime. When reading a journal article we’d expect for there to be some passages that were identical to previous works, and we’d be fine with it. It wouldn’t be deception; it would just be business as usual – we might even ridicule people who were worried about plagiarism the same way that the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine were ridiculed for fretting in 2016 that “research parasites” might have the temerity to reuse open data.

For an enthusiastic supporter of the Open Science movement like me, much of this sounds tempting. But there are two big problems with this view, both of which show that guarding against plagiarism is still healthy for academia as a whole.

The first is that even if we stopped considering plagiarism inherently wrong, it would still be correlated with activities we don’t want to encourage. Inadvertent plagiarism – like when the primatologist Jane Goodall had to reprint her book Seeds of Hope after her “chaotic note-taking” meant that she plagiarised Wikipedia among other sites – is a result of laziness, inattentiveness, haste or pure ignorance, all of which are the root of endless retractions, wasted resources and misleading scientific studies. Deliberate plagiarism is linked to outright research misconduct: fraudsters who fabricate or falsify data are often plagiarists too. The sloppiness or callousness of flouting one of academia’s fundamental rules acts as a useful flag that someone could also be engaging in other kinds of negligent or immoral behaviour.

So maintaining our punishing attitude towards plagiarism could reap benefits well beyond discouraging plagiarism itself, since it helps to screen out the worst of academia. These are the researchers who, in the deeply competitive academic world, use plagiarism (not to mention self-plagiarism) to get ahead unfairly – increasing their publication count, boosting their status and career, while leeching from other writers and producing little of value themselves. Dropping our aversion to this kind of plagiarism would be like making shoplifting legal: it might make the crime statistics look better, but you try running a shop – or try to maintain a fair, rules-based society – when there’s nothing to stop anyone wandering in and half-inching all your products. Not only that, but allowing self-plagiarism (often euphemistically termed “redundant publication” in investigations) adds to the bloat of academia: the stream of low-quality papers that someone – editor, reviewer, reader – has to deal with, wasting their time and distracting them from more fruitful tasks.

The perverse incentives of academia, which push us towards quantity (of scientific papers) over quality (of the actual research) are ultimately at the root of much of the plagiarism we observe. But even in a world where we reformed science, escaping from simplistic, quantity-based metrics for hiring, promoting and funding scientists, plagiarism would still be a red flag – an admission that at best you can’t be bothered to put the work in, and that at worst you might not be above breaking other, more important scientific rules.

Incentives are the basis of our second objection to the pro-plagiarism argument. An Open-Ideas, free-plagiarism model of academia couldn’t solve the problem of credit – the problem of academic authors getting appropriate recognition for what they’ve produced. This is a big deal: just take a look at the often-bitter disputes that arise over authorship of scientific publications, sometimes leading papers to be retracted when nobody can decide who deserves their name at the top. And look at what you get when academics are asked to do work for little to no reward or recognition: the notoriously flawed peer-review system.

Clearly, the current system of giving credit is far from optimal: the disproportionate focus on the first and final authors of any given publication (the former did most of the work; the latter supervised the project) means that those elsewhere in the list are essentially forgotten. But there are some possible fixes for that: we can rethink the way we apportion credit in journal articles, perhaps with each co-author gaining “points” that relate to what they added to a paper. We can do more of the aforementioned rethinking about how we hire and promote academics.

The collaborative picture of science mentioned above is a genuine one: to do large-scale research in fields from particle physics to medical genetics, researchers are teaming up and working together much more commonly than in previous decades. But running alongside this is human nature: academics will naturally compete with one another – which is in itself an important driver of new ideas. And they really want – and deserve – to be credited (not necessarily in the legal sense, often just in the sense of being valued by their peers) for what they’ve done.

We can even agree that “you didn’t build that”, that you “stood on the shoulders of giants”, and so on: vanishingly few ideas come about ex nihilo, and the vast majority are dependent on previous works and scholars for their foundation. This is Works in Progress, after all, not Works in Saltation. But nonetheless, to ask people to give up ownership of even their incremental contributions, and allow anyone (or, perhaps more accurately, no one) to take the credit, is a very poor incentive for researchers to go on producing more good work.

There’s a final, perhaps paradoxical point. Despite our general characterisation of plagiarism as the ultimate academic crime, a lot of academic gatekeepers are actually pretty lax about it. Our stated belief is that plagiarism is a terrible crime against scholarship, but in many cases our revealed belief can be summed up with a shrug. It’s been noted many times that journal editors are lackadaisical when it comes to plagiarism, and I doubt this is due to their having a forgiving attitude towards it. They’re probably just too overwhelmed to have time to consider it (something similar happens with other kinds of scientific error and potential fraud).

So maybe academia is a bit like art after all: we often have a fire-breathing reaction to the idea of plagiarism, but in practice the rules are patchily enforced, and sometimes “borrowing” work from others is excused. Nevertheless, pace Bob Dylan and pace Brian Frye, caring about plagiarism doesn’t make you a wussy or a pussy: cracking down on the unattributed lifting of ideas and phrases is still a good idea, no matter how open and communal you’d like your science. A world where we stop caring about plagiarism is one where we dismiss useful information about the freeriders and wrongdoers in our midst, and it’s one that erodes the motivation of individual scientists to produce new, original work.

I’ll end with a little verse on what an upsetting experience it can be to be a victim of theft – whether of your ideas, words or anything else:

“You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal?”

I wrote that myself.

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