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).

Plagiarism by students has spawned a whole plagiarism detection industry to which, Posner says, commercial publishers do not yet typically submit their authors’ manuscripts, despite some high profile instances of published plagiarism. Yet the potentially very large number of people who read commercially-published works must serve as a substantial deterrent to authors, a deterrent that students did not face before plagiarism-detection software. Plagiarism in essays read by only one or two markers had a reasonable chance of going undetected, creating an incentive to commit it.

But it is also the case that social norms differ between students and authors. Authors usually want to be original; copying someone else is admitting defeat on that quality, at least to oneself. Students rarely worry about originality, they just want to get better marks than they would if they wrote the essay entirely in their own words (rather pathetically, most of the instances of plagiarism I found when I marked student essays were of other weak students, so the plagiarist would have received a low mark even if it had been their own work). Since virtually all students want to get better marks, it’s easy to see how other students could at least see plagiarism as an ‘understandable’ transgression, and not react as strongly against it as academics typically do.

Plagiarism among students is actually quite different from plagiarism committed by published writers. Few people expect originality from students; what markers are looking for in student essays is understanding, and one sign of understanding is for them to be able to express ideas in their own words. But an act of plagiarism doesn’t actually prove that they don’t understand the ideas or have misled the marker as to their degree of understanding. It could just mean that they are lazy or that their language skills don’t match those of the author they are copying or meet the expectations placed on them (this is an issue with students whose English is less than fluent). I can’t see any alternative to the rules banning plagiarism, but in some cases the punishment – usually a zero mark for the piece of work in question when I was a tutor, but even more severe elsewhere – may be disproportionate to the actual wrong done.

Posner’s book – or rather essay in hardcover (an idea presumably copied from the best-selling On Bullshit) – is a good overview of the issues, mostly relating to authors and academics but also with some discussion of students. A must-have for those interested in the complicated issues surrounding copying others. Everyone who writes builds on other writers to some degree, and the boundaries between what is and what is not acceptable copying or imitation are not always clear.

5 thoughts on “Why is plagiarism bad?

  1. In my view the student who plagiarises is simply cheating and deserves zero marks. He or she is dishonestly trying to defeat the assessment process. On the other hand an author’s main aim is to inform or entertain his readers and if this aim is enhanced by some use of others’ material I don’t really see that any harm is done. It’s quite different though in circumstances where the author either claims originality, or the circumstances of his work requires it.


  2. I think I’m one of the few people that doesn’t care too much about petty student plagiarism where I work (much to some of my colleagues dislike). Apart from reasons of laziness on my own part (filling in the 23 forms and sitting in the 6 committees you need to when a student gets caught), I think there a few things to consider

    1) The Australian standard on unethical behavior is pretty low — AWB and so on are good examples — a majority of people evidentally couldn’t care less about unethical behavior. I don’t see why we should be enforcing elitist standards light years above the community ones.

    2) More generally, often plagiarism occurs where one individual is stealing the unoriginal ideas of another. If the stolen ideas were not original to start with, then I’m not quite sure where the plagiarist stands or whether it is plagiarism at all. Should I worry about copies of copies?


  3. The student plagiarism issue is an instance of moral panic I think. While real, it’s over-stated and can be avoided easily by setting intelligent assessment tasks. I believe a lot of the problems that do arise come from students thinking they ARE expected to be ‘original’. Once they understand that scholarship consists of demonstrating engagement with the work of recognised authorities they tend to see why referencing is worthwhile.

    Having said that, I suspect we only catch the less capable plagiarists and that some clever ones sail through undetected.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s