Tuesday, December 26, 2023

About Plagiarism

Much is being said and written about plagiarism in the current context. Harvard’s President Gay being accused of it, and side references made to both Presidents Obama and Biden having done it too.

Most of you, my readers, perhaps got a bachelor’s degree after which you got on with your off-campus life. You vaguely remember being told it was important not to borrow the work of others without giving them credit.

Perhaps you complied, perhaps you didn’t and got away with it, perhaps you got caught and got punished in some fashion. Chances are you never understood exactly why it was important to faculty. 

You thought it was just to force you to do your own thinking and writing, instead of submitting that done by others. That was true, but only part of the story. As radio personality Paul Harvey would intone in his famously histrionic fashion, “Here is the rest of the story.”

Professors who write conceptual pieces or research reports find their prestige based on the frequency and extent to which other scholars cite their work. Prestige translates into getting tenure, job offers from better universities, funding for research grants, book deals, etc. 

When someone copies my work and submits it as their own, they steal from me - it is theft. I did the work, they get the credit, when I deserved it. My original work with my name attached in a clear and unambiguous fashion is my intellectual property, wherever it gets published or archived. Someone who uses it without identifying it as mine might as well be stealing my computer, my car, or my good name. 

When someone quotes my work, gives me credit, they do me a favor, give my career a small boost. When someone steals my stuff, plagiarizes my work, my career gets no boost, and in fact some who later see my work may falsely believe I stole it from the actual thief. 

This elaborate “system” of earned credit only works because we academics police it. We jump on those who violate it, who steal the work of others and present it as their own. You can see why plagiarism by the president of our most prestigious university is such a scandal. It is roughly the equivalent of learning the Pope doesn’t believe in God.

Perhaps this explains why I try to provide references for most things I write, as I almost always have been inspired by something I read and I want to give credit where due.