Why is plagiarism wrong?


After broaching the topic of whether something that we all tend to agree is wrong (blackmail) should be illegal, I came across a comment on Pharyngula that, in the wake of the Avicenna plagiarism case, challenges another a popular belief, this time that plagiarism is wrong. Here is what commenter chimera said:

I don’t at all get what’s wrong with plagiarism unless you’re earning money or glory for someone else’s work. Our words, every single word, our thoughts, our statements are always just recombinations of other people’s words. It’s not like reporting on current events is high literature and you’re stealing someone else’s genius. Citing your sources is a courtesy. I believe in courtesy and also practice it and encourage others to do so when the occasion presents itself but that’s quite different from shunning and banning for copy and paste of news reports!

Rather than dismissing this view as obviously wrong, it might be worthwhile to use it to clarify exactly why plagiarism is wrong.

We could say that using someone else’s words without proper attribution violates an ethical principle but usually such principles are based on some actual harm that arises from violating it. We say something is wrong if it enables someone to gain a tangible benefit that is unearned or because it harms someone else.

For the first consideration of gaining an unearned benefit, let’s leave aside the case of Avicenna and FtB for the moment since the advertising on the site does generate revenue so the blogger does benefit (however slightly) from their writing, and consider the case of a blogger who does not accept advertising and thus makes no money from their writing. So that person does not benefit, at least directly and tangibly, from the act of plagiarism.

What about the other consideration of harm? What concrete harm accrues to the person who has been plagiarized? After all, the original author of the words has not suffered any direct harm either. Although plagiarism is often described as stealing someone’s words or ideas, the analogy is not quite exact since stealing an object or money results in one person losing something. Here the original author still retains their words and ideas.

So is this a case of no harm, no foul? In not, where is the harm?

I think that the benefit and harm here is indirect. The plagiarizer is presumably gaining an enhanced but unearned reputation that may enable them to be able in the future to earn money that they are not entitled to and even be in competition with the original author, while by not being cited, the latter loses publicity that might enable them to be more successful as a writer in the future.

That is the best benefit/harm argument against plagiarism that I can come up with at short notice that does not appeal to an abstract ethical principle. Although I am totally against plagiarism, the case against it in the narrow circumstances I described does seem a little weak. Perhaps this is another case (like with blackmail) where we decide it is wrong first on grounds that might not be totally rational, and then find reasons why it is so.

Anyone able to come up with stronger reasons to condemn plagiarism in the narrow case of an little known writer who is not paid for their writing?

Comments

  1. moarscienceplz says

    Although plagiarism is often described as stealing someone’s words or ideas, the analogy is not quite exact since stealing an object or money results in one person losing something. Here the original author still retains their words and ideas.

    I think the original writer does lose something. There is a reason why we say someone is “credited” with having written a thing that is admired by others. They have earned currency in the marketplace of ideas that should gain them a wider audience for their next work. But if their work is plagiarized, that has the effect of pulling them back down into the hoi polloi. And especially in the case of a writer who is still struggling to establish a good reputation, that can be devastating.

  2. astrosmash says

    I’d say one way it’s wrong is because the original author’s words may be used to misrepresent the original author’s intent

  3. machintelligence says

    I suspect that plagiarism is such a crime in the academic world is that being cited as a reference is about the only “pay” you get for publishing journal articles. Having an oft cited “classic in the field” enhances one’s stature.

  4. Holms says

    I would suggest that you erred when you said “Although plagiarism is often described as stealing someone’s words or ideas, the analogy is not quite exact since stealing an object or money results in one person losing something.” The person being plagiarised has lost something: credit.

    It is credit that enables the possible future earnings that you noted, but also other things that may be more abstract: peer respect, praise, influence on other writers; even scorn and criticism. All of these things, dollar value or not, should deservedly go to the author, and that is what plagiarism steals.

    Plus, it’s just dishonest.

  5. hyphenman says

    Iago:

    Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
    Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
    Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
    ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
    But he that filches from me my good name
    Robs me of that which not enriches him,
    And makes me poor indeed.

    Othello Act 3, scene 3, 155–161

  6. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    It’s not like reporting on current events is high literature and you’re stealing someone else’s genius

    Actually, “high literature” is one place where plagiarism- or worse -“Bad poets plagiarise. Good poets steal.” said T.S. Eliot- may be regarded with sympathy. Looking for Shakespeare’s plagiarisms is a literary occupation when people want a rest from plagiarising from him. However, for those of us who lack genius, Tom Lehrer’s advice- plagiarised from Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, of course- applies:

    Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
    So don’t shade your eyes,
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
    Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.

  7. Alverant says

    Not to mention that if the one doing the plagiarizing is a bit off his/her rocker it could damage whatever argument is being posted and if the plagiarizer is popular or powerful enough they can say the original author is the one in the wrong.

  8. AMM says

    I think plagiarism harms everyone. It’s most obvious when it’s discovered, of course — given that Avicenna lied about being the author of what he posted, what else did he lie about?

    But a more insidious problem is that it sabotages intellectual diversity. I’m most familiar with the sciences, where attribution isn’t just a matter of fairness. Citations and references are the web that holds science together. If you want to do real science and real research, you have to follow the links, you can’t just use somebody’s survey or some one person’s take on what’s true or some textbook. One of the huge values of the WWW is the web aspect of it. You don’t have to take someone’s recollection or summary or cut-and-paste of some report or source, you can follow the link, which, if you’re lucky, will link to yet other sources. By not linking the words he appropriated back to the source, he erased their context and thus destroyed a lot of their value.

    Now, one individual plagiarist won’t do too much visible damage, but as it becomes more common, it starts to debase the value of all writing.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Avicenna’s main crime was that he didn’t credit his sources. If he had done it, nobody would be complaining about use of other people’s work to make money (“piracy”) or to boost reputation (“plagiarism”), because that’s what all bloggers do. And linking to the sources wouldn’t have decreased his revenue in any way.

    Some of his sources were pretty obscure for a typical “Western” reader. With proper credits, those sources would also have benefited. That is also a thing that bloggers do. It’s pity that Avicenna missed the point.

  10. John Morales says

    Since plagiarism is a form of dishonesty, the question is tantamount to “Why is dishonesty wrong?”.

    (Unless one subscribes to virtue ethics, it need not necessarily be wrong)

  11. Edward Black says

    Why is plagiarism wrong? Because once it is found that a writer/blogger has plagiarized then every word they have written or will write in the future is suspect. There will be no credibility in anything they present in their views, actions and thoughts.

    Nothing of them can be trusted.

    This is why I do not understand the posts of people saying “Avi, please write again someday, I am sure you have learned your lesson”. After abusing the reader’s (and fellow bloggers) trust it would take a major, public, effort to get any measure of it back.

  12. says

    I don’t at all get what’s wrong with plagiarism unless you’re earning money or glory for someone else’s work.

    Well, first of all, how do we know they’re not earning money or glory? In Avicenna’s case, he may not have been making money, but he may be getting at least some glory. By being on FtB, he had an audience he may not otherwise have had.

    But, this statement leads me to questions I’m not sure chimera could answer. Like, “Where, then, do you draw the line?” “Who gets to decide where this line is drawn?” “How, then, are you going to enforce that this line be followed?” That last question may be one of the more important in my mind. Now not only does one have to find plagiarism, but now they have to evaluate if it violates some arbitrary line. That seems to much to demand.

    Also, I can imagine a problem with precedence. Let’s say you have a professional writer that also has a personal blog that doesn’t cross this line. If they are allowed to plagiarize on their blog, might not they end up screwing up and plagiarizing in their professional work? Basically, I think that if you tell people it’s OK to plagiarize in certain cases, they’re not necessarily going to just stick to those certain cases.

  13. Mano Singham says

    Edward,

    I understand what you are saying but the harm you describe is purely to the plagiarizer. In other words, it is a self-inflicted wound. The real question being raised is the harm to the plagiarized.

  14. says

    I also agree with what Holmes said @4. I’ll also say that by not crediting an author, that author may lose a potential audience. There are freelance writers like Amanda Marcotte whose work I now read and who I found out about through bloggers here citing her work. If they hadn’t cited her work, it would have taken me longer to find out about her work. (In this case, I’d have likely found her work eventually due to her involvement with the atheist movement.) And if I had not found out about her because she was being plagiarized, she would have had one less reader, which may mean less money and/or opportunity for her. I would imagine in a career like that, a writers value could well be based on how many readers they draw in.

  15. Anne Fenwick says

    What a given society considers property and how they expect property to be identified and treated is very variable. This isn’t one of those relatively objective wrongs like physically harming someone, or stealing the food out of their mouths. It becomes wrong socially and contextually. That’s probably why some people seem genuinely ignorant of what plagiarism is and why we don’t do it, whereas to others it’s enormously taboo, a breach inspires revulsion and disgust which perhaps go beyond the rational.

    What we’ve done is constitute the form of written words themselves as property and property is something our culture is incredibly protective of, legally and personally. We don’t easily accept the theft of anything at all on the grounds that the object isn’t valuable or useful to its owner. We have a really strong negative emotional response to finding things we own in the hands of others. And then, because words are property, we can potentially exchange them for money and status. In the world of writing, especially in academia, status is assessed through attribution and the accumulation of references from others. As you probably all realize, even the Internet assigns us a status by counting links to our work. By not referencing and attributing, Avi and other plagiarisers unfairly deprive writers of something we all crave in this field: the status which comes from being quoted. They unfairly arrogate to themselves the value of originality – a value which is taken incredibly seriously in our society even though it was utterly ignored by many others. And then, since we have these rules and we mostly play by them, we also don’t like to see someone getting by on less work than we do ourselves. As a matter of fact, I do think that attribution and sourcing are objectively important in the case of non-fictional writing, since it’s through them that the growth of knowledge and ideas can be validated and expanded. Otherwise, you just have a glorified rumor mill.

    All this would have seemed odd to other cultures, in many of which the exact attribution of words, even the notion of authorship itself, was of no importance. There are also cultures where it was considered rather presumptuous to come up with something new, repetition was the rule and authorship was assigned to some suitably distant, preferably spiritual entity. But then, none of those cultures had professional writers, and really, none of them were as good at generating new ideas and knowledge as ours is. They weren’t even trying to do so.

  16. Dunc says

    … consider the case of a blogger who does not accept advertising and thus makes no money from their writing. So that person does not benefit, at least directly and tangibly, from the act of plagiarism.

    The plagiarizer is presumably gaining an enhanced but unearned reputation that may enable them to be able in the future to earn money that they are not entitled to

    I can’t agree with the implication here that the only benefit that really counts is monetary, and that the only value of reputation is in the extent to which it may affect future earnings. Social status is very valuable in and of itself. Indeed, once you get past the necessary minimum threshold of being able to provide for a reasonably comfortable life, the principle value of money is as a marker of social status.

  17. says

    I understand what you are saying but the harm you describe is purely to the plagiarizer. In other words, it is a self-inflicted wound. The real question being raised is the harm to the plagiarized.

    No, that’s not the only “real question” here. Even if we discount the self-inflicted harm the plagiarist does himself, there’s still the harm done to his readers, who trusted him as a credible source and may have formed opinions and worldviews based on his writings; and who may, when the plagiarism is exposed, lose faith not only in the writer, but in any of the perfectly valid and necessary ideas he may have exposed them to. Avi said a lot of things that needed to be said, and now the people who hate him for it can use his plagiarism as an excuse to discount, deny or ignore things that should not be discounted.

    Plagiarism is far from a victimless act. It’s a form of lying or fraud, and lying and fraud must be treated as wrong, in and of themselves, without having to wait for any specific quantifiable harm to be done. I’m not sure why you’re trying to take such a basic point of ethics and pretend it’s #UpForDebate. Quite frankly, I’m suspicious of your motives here, and of the motives of those who try to have “civil rational debates” about our basic principles of ethics.

    I don’t at all get what’s wrong with plagiarism unless you’re earning money or glory for someone else’s work.

    This sounds like yet another libertarian trying to make excuses for amoral behavior by saying it’s only wrong if someone loses money. Again, this whole thread smells of low tide.

  18. says

    Indeed, once you get past the necessary minimum threshold of being able to provide for a reasonably comfortable life, the principle value of money is as a marker of social status.

    Bullshit. Money is also a necessary means of enhancing one’s quality of life after all the basic survival and comfort stuff is taken care of. You need money to stay secure and comfortable, but you need more money to get an education, learn new skills, travel and see new cultures, and expose yourself to art, literature, and other things that make your life more interesting, and make you a more interesting and better person.

  19. Mano Singham says

    Anne and Leo,

    Those are about as good a case against the narrow context of plagiarism that I raised as I have seen.

    Thanks!

  20. says

    All this would have seemed odd to other cultures, in many of which the exact attribution of words, even the notion of authorship itself, was of no importance. There are also cultures where it was considered rather presumptuous to come up with something new, repetition was the rule and authorship was assigned to some suitably distant, preferably spiritual entity.

    Yeah, well, we’re not really interested in how things work at Fox News.

  21. says

    Another problem with plagiarism is that most of the people who read blogs like FTB simply don’t have the resources to independently verify any of what we read. So we need a convenient shortcut to quickly determine what to believe and what to discount — and one such shortcut is to find where a certain bit of information or allegation comes from, and judge its credibility based on what we may know of its source. That’s not a perfect means of separating fact from lies, of course, but it’s pretty effective, and it’s the best tool many of us have; and when an author fails to cite his/her sources, he/she degrades our ability to judge the information we’re getting. So that’s another kind of real harm done by plagiarism.

  22. Dunc says

    RB @18: I clearly have a rather higher threshold for what constitutes “a reasonably comfortable life” than you do. I’m not talking about mere survival and basic needs, I’m including all the stuff you enumerate (and probably more, in fact). Have you ever considered trying to read other people a bit more charitably?

  23. says

    Sorry about the misinterpretation, dunc; but “reasonably comfortable life” is a pretty vague phrase, and as you just admitted, different people read it to mean different things. I took a much narrower interpretation of it because I very often hear about people not doing certain things to educate or improve themselves, or learn new skills for a career change, because they’re “comfortable” where they are, and thus don’t have an immediate incentive to make any changes.

  24. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Why plagiarism is bad in the context of a student’s work for school is obvious.

    If someone presents some work as original, I suppose there’s the inherent dishonesty. Dishonesty is generally frowned upon.

    Further, this dishonesty relates to something Mano said. Is it criminal fraud to lie on a resume? I don’t know. It’s morally wrong to lie on a resume IMHO, and for that reason it is also wrong to publish something in order to look more attractive in future contracts and employment because IMHO it is tantamount to fraud.

    PS:

    I noticed some confusion between plagiarization and copyright violations. When you copy a mp3 of a song, or copy a book, it’s not plagiarizing as I understand the word. However, some instances of plagiarization are also instances of copyright violations, so let me talk about copyright violations in general.

    I know some other countries do it differently, but here in the US we do not have author’s right copyright. I tend to lean strongly against author’s right copyright, which colors my response. For more on this topic, please see:
    >Misinterpreting Copyright—A Series of Errors
    >by Richard Stallman
    https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/misinterpreting-copyright.html

    In a particular society, like what the US constitution proscribes, non-author’s-right copyright is a system whereby we sacrifice some degree some degree of personal liberty in order to pay authors to create work for the betterment of everyone in society – not just the authors.

    Violating non-author’s-right copyright is a bit like cheating on your taxes. Most of us wouldn’t consider cheating on your taxes to be the gravest of moral evils; it results in basically no identifiable concrete individualized harm. (It does result in slightly higher tax rates for everyone else.) However, we recognize it as a basic collective action issue, and we (most of us anyway) want the police to enforce people to pay their taxes and to enforce this kind of copyright. Not because of any personalized harm, but in order to foster the public good and overcome a collective action issue.

    Regarding collective action problems, see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

    I suspect many people are coming from the perspective of author’s right copyright. To those people, I politely disagree. I do not recognize an a priori right of ownership over ideas and art. In fact, I do not recognize any a priori right of ownership at all. Property rights in general are a fiction of the social contract. Property rights are tools to achieve desired ends, such as human happiness and well-being. Property rights are not an ends unto themselves.

    Further, a major difference between theft of physical property and theft of intellectual property is that theft of physical property denies the original possessor use of that property. Whereas, theft of intellectual property often does not deny the original possessor use of that property. Thus, for that reason I tend to take a very dim view of intellectual property rights. I think I defend the practice of copyright only for the reasons of collective action issues and the benefit of consumers and society at large, and never for author’s right nor author’s benefit.

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