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Saturday, September 1, 2012

In Defense of "Plagiarism"

I'm not really defending "plagiarism."  One of the few things I remember about my high school English class was when, in discussing The Scarlet Letter," my teacher explained that "revenge" was one of the worst of all possible sins, right up there with plagiarism.

While some plagiarism is obvious and obviously reprehensible -- i.e. taking someone's work and passing it off as one's own -- much of what passes for plagiarism is in a much grayer area.

For starters, plagiarism is not a legal term.  Inevitably, people concerned about plagiarism can really only cite copyright law, which is something quite different.  Here's the entire front page from "":

What is Plagiarism?

Many people think of plagiarism as copying another's work, or borrowing someone else's original ideas. But terms like "copying" and "borrowing" can disguise the seriousness of the offense:

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to "plagiarize" means

  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
  • to use (another's production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft
  • to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward.

But can words and ideas really be stolen?

According to U.S. law, the answer is yes. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property, and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or a computer file).

All of the following are considered plagiarism:

  • turning in someone else's work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on "fair use" rules)
Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided, however, by citing sources. Simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed, and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source, is usually enough to prevent plagiarism. See our section on citation for more information on how to cite sources properly.


Note how when they get to giving examples, they simply say "All of the following are considered plagiarism."  It's not untrue -- there are probably some people who consider everything on that list plagiarism -- but there are doubtless others (including me) who don't "consider" all of these things plagiarism.

Some of them could be simple mistakes -- e.g. I didn't put the copied text above in quotation marks.  Was that plagiarism?

Did John F, Kennedy commit "plagiarism" when he put his name on Profiles in Courage (assuming the allegations that Ted Sorensen ghost-wrote it for him are correct)?  [just looked that up on Wikipedia and saw the following, which I hadn't heard before -- the joke around the Senate was that they wished Jack had a little less profile and a little more courage.].  Put another way, is it really "plagiarism" when the true writer is a willing (and well-paid) participant in the process?

I seriously doubt that either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama wrote their campaign books all by themselves -- does that disqualify both of them from being President?

Likewise, "giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation" could be a simple mistake, not plagiarism.  In fact, putting the thing in quotes ought to be a pretty good defense AGAINST plagiarism, because in that case you're making it clear that they are NOT your words (that's not to say that misattributing a quote is never misconduct; just saying it's not always plagiarism).

And then there's "changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit."  This goes beyond the traditional definition of plagiarism, which is to take someone else's ideas or expression and pass them off as one's own.  If the sentence embodies an "idea", then yes, an attribution might be appropriate.  But if the sentence is merely reporting a fact -- especially a fact that is widely known -- then why should it be "plagiarism" to rewrite the "fact" using new words, but the same "sentence structure"?  If the author used subject-verb-object, am I precluded from doing the same?

I am not really defending Jonah Lehrer here -- the evidence that he engaged in journalistic misconduct seems overwhelming.  But that doesn't mean it's all plagiarism.  For example, Charles Seife, in yesterday's Slate, goes through a bunch of examples from Lehrer's work, and declares many of them to be "plagiarism."  Here's one that troubles me:

The rebounding experiment went like this: 10 basketball players, 10 coaches and 10 sportswriters, plus a group of complete basketball novices, watched video clips of a player attempting a free throw. (You can watch the videos here.) Not surprisingly, the professional athletes were far better at predicting whether or not the shot would go in. While they got it right more than two-thirds of the time, the non-playing experts (i.e., the coaches and writers) only got it right about 40 percent of the time.

In the experiment, 10 basketball players, 10 coaches and 10 sportswriters (considered non-playing experts), and novices all watched a video clip of someone attempting a free throw. The players were better at predicting whether the shot would go in: they got it right in two-thirds of the shots they saw, compared to 40 percent right for novices and 44 percent for coaches and writers. 

The "gotcha" here is that it was really 5 of each, so that tells us that Lehrer was working from the erroneous Newsweek piece.  But does that make it plagiarism?  Seife seems to think it does:

"With plagiarism, an author tries to convince his audience that he has become conversant in a subject through journalistic research, processed that research, and distilled it by turning it into words on paper."

If I am posting a blog about something that occurred in the real world (and which I happened to read about first in Newsweek), do I really have to give Newsweek credit?  In this one, Lehrer has changed both the sentence structure and the vocabulary, added new expression, and also added a helpful link to the videos themselves.  Is it plagiarism just because we now know that his source was this particular Newsweek article?'  I personally don't assume that every journalist that reports the result of some study has necessarily read the original study or spoken to the person who conducted the study, but that's what Seife seems to think the use of such a study always implies.

If the journalistic profession wants to label that plagiarism, I don't really have standing to complain.  But what about high school students?  I'll get to that later.

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