Plagiarism Is Theft – But Of What?

By Neuroskeptic | January 26, 2016 3:58 pm

It’s widely accepted that plagiarism is a bad thing. But why is this? What makes it wrong?


You might say that plagiarism is theft of intellectual property. To be sure, if I copy someone else’s work and publish it myself, I’d be in breach of copyright; I’d be pirating their material. However, I think that the legal issue of copyright and the moral problem of plagiarism are quite distinct. I could pirate your work without plagiarizing it, if I made it freely available but attributed it to you. Conversely I could plagiarize without breach of copyright if the original work was in the public domain.

Another view would be that plagiarism is wrong because it is stealing credit from the original creators. On this view the problem is that if you pass off my work as your own, then you’re taking credit that’s rightfully mine. You’re making me a victim of your theft.

This seems sensible. However, I don’t think this is the only reason why plagiarism is wrong. I think that plagiarism’s victims are not merely the original authors, but everyone else who is trying to produce original works in the same field. Plagiarism represents, so to speak, the counterfeiting of credit. It devalues the currency of creation.

This is why “self-plagiarism” is wrong. On the “stealing credit” theory, there’s no such thing as self-plagiarism: you can’t steal from yourself, so you should be able to rehash your own work at will. However, surely if I copy my old work and pass it off as a new, original work, I’m getting credit twice when I only deserve it once. By self-plagiarizing, I didn’t steal credit but I did counterfeit it (although other-plagiarism is even worse.)

So plagiarism is not the theft of text, or ideas, or even of credit. However, I believe that plagiarists are stealing – at least, that is, whenever they find themselves in competition with honest people. Plagiarists steal opportunity from their honest peers. In science, for instance, jobs, promotions and funding are assigned largely on the basis of the publication records of the candidates. There are not enough of these things to go around. So whenever a plagiarist wins one of these prizes on the strength of their unfairly inflated record, someone else misses out.

This is why I don’t like plagiarists. I don’t take pleasure in anyone’s ‘downfall’, but I look at it this way: for every disgraced plagiarist, an honest researcher gets a job, or gets funded, or gets promoted.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, PIE, science, select, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    When in doubt, use Asimov (not Cliff or Monarch Notes) to get through Shakespeare.

  • da Tyga

    Plagiarists also steal the reader’s time and attention. Why read a bad rehash of material when you could read the original. Reading original material anchors the work to the time and prevailing context in which it was published. Over time, those aspects change and thus the contribution of the work is also adversely impacted.

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s true, although sometimes plagiarists copy very recent material. So although plagiarism usually hurts readers, I’d say this isn’t the core problem with it.

      • benshoemate

        Ironically the next article in my feed after this one was also about plagiarism

  • OWilson

    We all know that plagiarism is the unattributed usage of original material.

    Aside from the major intellectual capital considerations, there are many other annoying examples.

    You tell a friend a fact or an idea, and then listen to him repeat it in a group as if it is his own thought, while you are standing right there.

    In entertainment, most folks are unaware that some of the greatest movies and TV shows they enjoy, are re-makes from the past, or plots from other countries.

    In music, do we really need Michael Buble and Diane Krall reprising the standards, when we have the peerless, matchless renderings of Frank and Ella, in high fidelity? (not to mention, they had Nelson Riddle :)

    AI and robots are now capable of writing songs, and according to today’s news, political speeches. Will some organization be required to protect their rights too?

    • Uncle Al

      Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) is substantially The Crimson Pirate (1952), including the inverted rowboat submarine dismissed by Mythbusters. “Crimson” has the best pirate flag ever (note the politically recursive nuance, below) Youtube, v=Izws4RmQUBo, 0:40 and 2:37. It is Burt Lancaster’s rebuttal to being grilled by the House UnAmerican Activities Commission (HUAC). Congress (and presumably Disney) remained clueless, pro forma.

  • Karen Allen

    Even if one avoids plagiarism like the plague it is, since our consciousness is comprised of everything we have seen, read, and heard, how can we ever be sure that our own “original” thoughts are not a reworking of somebody else’s, thus making us plagiarists as well? How many acts of plagiarism are in fact acts of convergent evolution?

    • andrew oh-willeke

      Plagiarism senso stricto is a much more specific kind of misconduct (involving quotation or close paraphrasing without attribution) than the less specific and related but academically dishonest act of failing to provide citation for the source of an idea utilized in a paper. Because failure to cite is a more vague question in practice for the reasons that you identify, the gray areas of failure to cite are policed less aggressively.

      Independent invention without access to the alleged source is a valid defense to the claim that you have failed to cite (something also true in copyright cases, but not in patent or trademark cases). But, part of the duty to cite that is acknowledged by academics includes a duty to use reasonable care to maintain adequate records of your sources in your day to day research that make it possible for you to distinguish your original work from work derived from your sources more accurately.

    • benshoemate

      As he said, it’s not the thoughts that are valueable but the opportunity to formulate them and apply them in this manner and at this moment that is valuable. Ultimately, what needs to get said will get said, problems that need solving wil be solved. But the opportunity to play the part is something actors value enough to compete for and audition for – even though the script is set.

      As Thomas Jefferson said, “that which is logical is inevitalable” (which makes me wonder the authors thought on misattributed quotes).

      If someone else had replied to you here with more or less the same thought, I lose the opportunity. That would be ok. no problem, first come first served – or rather to the victors go the spoils, whatever they are of commenting on a blog post. But if we find out later that the comment was a spambot that simply cut and paste a paragraph of the authors text that resembles a comment…well…if it’s insightful…even by mistake…the audience won’t care but I will have been cheated. My part to play stolen by a hack hamlet.

  • saymwah

    I agree with you that plagiarism deprives honest competitors of opportunity. But the word for this isn’t “theft,” it’s “cheating.”

    • Neuroskeptic

      I agree, it is cheating. However I think it can also be viewed, from a different perspective, as stealing something (albeit an intangible thing) that rightfully belongs to other people.

      • andrew oh-willeke

        I’d agree that theft is a poor choice of words relative to cheating or fraud, except in the rare case where the plagiarized work is published before the legitimate one is published (well, not really that rare, it happens in the case of professors stealing from the graduate students that they advise all the time).

    • andrew oh-willeke

      I’m not sure that it is important that honest competitors are deprived of opportunity. Plagiarism of an essay about a novel when you are the only living literary scholar who writes about the works of the author in question is still wrong, even if no one but you would ever have written an original essay instead and the source for the plagiarism died many generations ago.

      The wrong is that the plagiarist is defrauding the reader (depriving the reader of the honest services and truth that the reader was entitled to expect from the writer) and that the writer is unjustly enriching himself in the intangible currency of reputational credit, not that either the source scholar or a would be competitor was harmed.

      The victim is generally the reader (who is defrauded), and is not primarily the plagiarist’s fellow scholars. And, since it isn’t obvious that unjust enrichment of the plagiarist is possible in the absence of a reader, it also isn’t clear that plagiarism is wrong until someone is deceived by it.

  • SoldierCynic

    Respectfully nonconcur with the idea of self-plagiarism. If you reuse a portion from one of your previous works as part of a new work without attributing the reused portion back to the previous work, there is still creation in the new content as well as in the new use of the old content. Thus the accusation that you would be counterfeiting credit for new work is false because there is creation in the work arising from the synthesis of the content.

    If I paint a picture of a house this week and next week I paint a picture of the same house from another angle with additional elements, have I plagiarized the first picture?

    • benshoemate

      Paint me the same scene is fine. Print or photocopy it and the value is less. Picasso drew hundreds of dove scratches, valuable cause they were made by his hand.

      If you happen to retype you same words, letter for letter, it means more than an blind copy paste of a previous work because your effort recertifies the thought that you believe the words apply. Intentional vs unintentional plagiarism.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Respectfully nonconcur with the idea of self-plagiarism. If you reuse a portion from one of your previous works as part of a new work without attributing the reused portion back to the previous work, there is still creation in the new content as well as in the new use of the old content

      It depends how big the portion is! Sometimes you get whole papers republished with just a few words changed in the title or abstract. Or I’ve seen papers with 80% text overlap against a paper from the same authors published just weeks before. In which case the second paper does contain a little new content, but not a full paper’s worth.

  • andrew oh-willeke

    Can’t say that I’m worried about self-plagiarism either. The gravamen of plagiarism may be more unjust enrichment to the plagiarist than it is about causing some loss to the person whose work is plagiarized, but I still don’t see anything unjust about getting credit for work that you really did previously. There is nothing at all unusual about writing multiple publications about the same field that overlap in content. Why is word for word repetition of your own prior publications, or close paraphrases of your own prior publications, any worse?

    In my mind, self-plagiarism is not immoral so much as it is not classy and not polished writing. It has more in common with publishing a paper replete with non-confusing grammatical errors. It reduces the quality of the work that contains it, but it isn’t really unethical.

    • benshoemate

      Only immoral if you were asked for something orginal and new and gave something old. In which case the crime is not plagiarism but lying.

      Imagine the case of the absent minded professor who assigns students the same book report twice. The students are trilled, they dust off their old work and turn it again. One however turns his already graded paper. The teacher sees it and says “what? Have I already assigned this? My bad” And gives an “A+” to the student who turned in his graded paper and an “F” to the rest of you dishonest children that tried to trick me.

    • Neuroskeptic

      The gravamen of plagiarism may be more unjust enrichment to the plagiarist than it is about causing some loss to the person whose work is plagiarized, but I still don’t see anything unjust about getting credit for work that you really did previously.

      That’s true but if I write a paper I deserve credit for that paper. I don’t deserve credit for two papers, but if I self-plagiarize (or in the extreme case just resubmit the same manuscript i.e. duplicate publication) I could multiply the credit.

      This is still not as bad as plagiarizing from someone else because then I deserve zero credit and get some. I countereit credit out of nothing. If I publish my own work twice without making it clear that it’s a rehash, I double my credit. But I’m still getting an advantage over other authors who don’t do that.

  • benshoemate

    It’s not stealing. It’s simply dishonest. The reason it’s so despised is that when you are in the business of pursuing truth- as every scientist, journalist, and poet is – dishonesty is anathema to that pursuit. It’s is the deliberate sabatoge of the truth – and the truth is an object the community values higher than all others. It is the equivalent of falsifying data or bearing false witness. The dishonesty of plagiarism, once uncovered, castes a shadow of doubt over the work itself, the authors previous works, the publisher and everyone involved. It taxes the community with the expensive burden of sorting out fact from fiction in the melting pot of our mind. If they lied about this- what else?

  • FSE

    In law, promotions are often assigned on the basis of the number of legal documents produced by the candidates. Yet those legal documents are not expected to be original, in fact they are often literally copy-paste efforts. If someone went to the effort of writing up an original, non-boilerplate contract, then they would be at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Most likely, they would be told to reduce their originality, and sacrifice their creativity.

    So I don’t think it’s correct to say that plagiarism is a theft of opportunity. It is merely a breach of convention. In settings where nobody expects original work, it is perfectly acceptable.

    And this even applies to academia. By convention, writing is expected to be original but oral presentations often are not. A professor who gives the same talk every year would be quite unlikely to be accused of self-plagiarism, whereas submitting the same paper repeatedly would be far more likely to be punished. It is a matter of custom, nothing more.

    • Neuroskeptic

      It’s true that there are many cases in which originality is not expected.

      However academic writing is a case in which it is expected (except perhaps in the Methods sections) and therefore, a plagiarist is not merely breaking the convention, but gaining an unexpected advantage over those who don’t.

      In the case of legal documents the analogy might be someone who didn’t draw up any documents but scanned other lawyer’s documents and photoshopped their own name onto them.

      So long as they didn’t get caught, they’d be stealing opportunity.

  • Jayarava

    Hmm. I think the idea that plagiarism is “theft” is a relatively new reading of the word. It didn’t mean that when I was at high school for example.

    What it meant was laziness, misrepresentation, and deception. The plagiarist was guilty of taking a short cut rather than applying themselves. laziness was seen as a moral failing. But the crux of the matter seemed to be that one was passing something off as one’s own work – a deception. A lie in effect. In a system were one is graded on the quality of one’s own intellectual effort, the subversion of the system by plagiarism was an egregious moral failing precisely because the system of assessing people’s merits on the basis of their written work would collapse if plagiarism went undetected. The fact that it was theft was never raised as I recall. I think plagiarism as *theft* has only emerged as a major issue in this century.

    Perhaps this is more of an issue amongst professionals whose status in the profession (and their salary) is linked to their work. If someone else claims the credit for that work then that undermines the original authors status. But… only if the academic community is deceived into misattributing credit for the work.

    If that isn’t the issue, and it seems to me that this is not what you are complaining about, then my first answer seems to be the crux – plagiarism subverts the system of assessing someone’s merit based on their work. If we don’t detect the plagiarism we over-estimate the merit of the person, and the value of their work. Since an academic’s own merit is based on their position in this hierarchy the plagiarist attracts ire for cue jumping (and English people are always going to be more incensed by this than any other nationality).

    So yeah, plagiarism is wrong – but primarily because it is a deception, and secondarily because it subverts the supposed meritocracy of academia. The issue of theft is tertiary and applicable only to special circumstances in which credit is misattributed, and again the problem is that it subverts the hierarchy.

  • Ven Popov

    It is interesting what one would consider self-plagiarism. For example, in most of my work I tend to use the same analysis tools over and over again, and I have a short paragraph that describes the analysis procedures along with citation to those who have developed the procedure, etc. It is highly technical, and there isn’t creative thought in it to begin with (beyond the fact that I have identified it as the correct and useful technique for my data). Yet, I’ve been told that just copy pasting this paragraph (~200 words) from paper to paper (on different topics with different datasets, but the same analysis procedure), constitutes self-plagiarism and that I should write it anew every time. Which seems to be absurd in this and many other cases, and a waste of effort (there aren’t that many ways to say “Results were analysed with mixed-effects regressions with participants and items as varying intercepts (citation), etc.”. Or another example, I am writing a paper on a topic similar, but not identical to a previous paper I wrote. Most of the introduction is novel, but there’s a description of a couple of studies in my previous paper (again ~200 words), which is said very succinctly and underwent a lot of revision, which will fit perfect in my new paper. Is that a self-plagiarism? If not/yes, then what determines if something is? Total length of copied material, relative length to full text, originality level of content (highly technical writing describing procedures vs presenting an argument), etc? The lines don’t seem that clear. If you just take the same paper, change the title and try to publish it again that’s obviously wrong, but this is very rare, such intermediate cases are much more common.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I would say that Methods section copy-pasting is an extremely mild form of self-plagiarism and it shouldn’t be considered a problem.

      In an original research paper, the key part is the results and the discussion of those results. That’s what makes it original. The Methods may not be original and I don’t think anyone would expect them to be. Everyone copy pastes that part sometimes.

      The Introduction is a bit more of a grey area, but I don’t consider self-plagiarism in the introduction to be a huge problem so long as the results are novel.

  • Jeremy Bowman

    I’ve argued that plagiarism isn’t “theft” at all:

    • Neuroskeptic

      I think we agree, actually. We both agree that the problem with plagiarism is not that the actual text is ‘stolen’ (as if one could steal an idea) but that the original author loses out on credit and hence “potential profit” as you say, or “opportunity” as I put it.

      However I would add that it’s not the original author who loses out by plagiarism but all honest authors in the same field.

  • Jon Wong

    Plagiarism is the stealing of another person’s ideas WITHOUT his permission or WITHOUT attribution of his work so that he may level a complaint at you if he objects to your usage of it. It is not really about credit for the creator of the ideas, it is about the dishonesty of the plagiarist. Permission must always be sought and granted for a living person. Attribution is generally enough for a deceased individual.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I see what you mean, but I don’t think permission removes the possibility of plagiarism. Suppose I publish a paper and then my friend says “I want to reuse lots of text from your paper and publish it as my own work.”

      I might grant them permission (if they were a very good friend) but they’d still be plagiarizing. In fact, by consenting to their copying, I’d be consenting to the plagiarism and I’d be partially responsible.

  • OWilson

    It is ironic. On one hand, with the rise of the internet and the vast amount of content freely available, there are far more opportunities to plagiarize.

    On the other hand, it it much easier to spot the fakers!

  • sswimmer

    Aside from the issue of theft, the plagiarists are frauds, passing-off content to get ahead, convince someone of your expertise etc. It adds value to the plagiarist while devaluing or nullifying the work of those who are original. I think the fraud aspect is as important as the theft aspect.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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