Why is plagiarism bad?

One curious feature of both academia and journalism is that copying without attribution something written by somebody else that is correct is a far worse sin than publishing something that is one’s own work but entirely wrong. Yet from the point-of-view of the reader, which is the larger problem? Many of us rely heavily on the reporting and research of others in forming our views, and an erroneous fact has much more serious consequences for the soundness of our opinions than a mistaken attribution.

These strong norms against plagiarism, as Richard Posner argues in his The Little Book of Plagiarism, are a modern phenomenon, with great writers like Shakespeare freely copying from others, though often improving on the original in the process. In his time, there were pragmatic reasons for plagiarism. When plays were censored it was safer to re-use old material than to create new words that might be censored. Also, without modern mass production of cultural works copying brought ideas to wider audiences.

Posner sees the rise of individualism as important: ‘each of us thinks that our own contribution to society is unique, and so deserves public recognition, which plagiarism clouds.’ This has potential economic consequences, as authors (as I noted earlier in the week) become brands. The original author may be disadvantaged in selling his or her work by those using their words and gaining sales instead; the plagiarist may create a false brand, which consumers cannot rely on when considering whether to buy their subsequent works.

But clearly it isn’t just about the money. There is outrage surrounding plagiarism even when it has no financial consequences. And it doesn’t really have much to do with protecting consumers, who may be only vaguely aware of the author’s identity when, for example, reading newspapers and magazines or watching a TV show. It has far more to do with the pride of authors in wanting to take credit for their work, and in our interest in character – if plagiarists deceive us about authorship, can we trust them at all? (though this matters less with fiction than non-fiction).
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