Brian Frye and Agnes Callard both recently posted well-articulated essays defending plagiarism (Callard only “sort of” defends plagiarism). My visceral response to both of these essays was “NO!” Their essays have anticipated my reaction as motivated by a desire for the academic currency of accolades, recognition, gratitude, and perhaps some form of immortality. Like any longstanding, largely accepted moral norm, the norm against plagiarism should be periodically reconsidered.
I would like to briefly add to this reconsideration by listing a few less obvious reasons for the norm. I do not discuss the obvious (and, to me, extremely compelling) reason that plagiarism is dishonest, because without a norm against plagiarism, plagiarism would not be dishonest. In that case, there would be no duty to disclose and no moral wrong in taking credit for one’s work. Please feel free to add to my list — and DO cite to this blog if you build upon my reasons.
- A moral or professional norm against plagiarism means intellectual property laws can be less stringent, without leaving those whose ideas are repurposed feeling cheated. (There is an analogy here to the view that social pressures against certain types of speech are sufficient to render legal censorship unnecessary.) Currently, I do not care if I benefit monetarily from any given idea. I would much rather have an entire work of mine reproduced (that would be wonderful!) than have a smaller portion of it used without attribution. I might feel differently if I did not receive a dignitary benefit from my work; I might be more inclined to desire a proprietary benefit. Perhaps a change in the norm against plagiarism would thus shift fair use laws, or cause academics to pursue copyright claims more seriously. Right now academia is (I think for better, not worse) considered a place where people enter the profession mostly for “pure” reasons, rather than financial reasons. I consider ego to be a purer motivator than financial gain, because notions of integrity, rigor, and academic worthiness factor into one’s sense of self.
- So yes, we want credit for our work. Ideas are a beautiful, useful, distinctly human form of production. I think it’s fantastic that there is such a simple way of satisfying the innate desire to be recognized and compensated for what we have produced. It is not ungenerous for academics to want credit for their ideas — beyond the credit they receive for their expression, which receives copyright protection. Our generosity is given, freely and happily, in extra hours spent helping students and colleagues with their work. Accepting this form of credit, instead of another form of credit, likely is in the public good.
- Citing one’s source for an idea reduces confusion in several areas.
- First, a reader can understand how much of an academic’s work is original. This matters because the originality of a contribution distinguishes it, and lends an air of thoughtfulness, insight, and expertise to a piece. These qualities provide a reader a baseline of credit to the author from which to assess all of the reasoning (original or not) of a piece. Readers can then use that judgment of the quality of an author’s work to make larger evaluations about the author and her future work – how careful it is, how intellectually honest it is, etc. Of course, knowing how much of a work is original also allows faculty committees and administrators to know how much someone is contributing to academic discourse and knowledge generation, to evaluate one’s place at a university.
- Secondly, the generator of an idea usually expresses that idea best (or at least most thoroughly), and a reader can find the source of an idea and read its original exposition. This will allow a reader to better understand how a new work builds on, or modifies, an original idea — and the foundations upon which that original idea is built. Perhaps there should also be a norm against ghostwriting to render the norm against plagiarism less hypocritical, but I think there is already a norm against ghostwriting, at least in the legal academy.
- Although some ideas are too obvious, and too widespread, to be cited, the norm against plagiarism is fairly easy to “police.” Anyone reading my work will know that if I reference the Experience Machine, I have stolen the idea from Robert Nozick, and they can discount my work accordingly. Experts in my area will know other pieces from which I have borrowed without attribution. The norm is also largely self-enforcing because we academics have all bought into it. And we all understand the norms — they are different in a classroom — where you don’t have to constantly cite others — a blog, and a paper. To the extent the applicable of a norm is debatable, there is no concrete consequence for violating the norm, because it is extra-legal and we understand the grey areas of the norm. Changing a well-established norm requires a showing of a decent degree of upside, and I am not seeing much upside in changing our defaults.