The Varying Ethics of Plagiarism

Lines in the SandLast month on Poynter, author and writing teacher Roy Peter Clark outlined 10 acts that, according to him, are commonly referred to as plagiarism but actually are not.

The article is an interesting read and includes potential misdeeds such as ghostwriting, self-plagiarism and use of boilerplate material.

According to Clark, who develops his checklist from Judge Richard A. Posner’s “The Little Book of Plagiarism” (previous review), boils down the “crime” of plagiarism to four elements:

  1. Substantial copying without credit
  2. The copying is done fraudulently
  3. The intention is clearly to fool the reader
  4. It has a potential negative repercussion for the reader and/or original author

(Note: Clark only says “and” in the last point but, given what he wrote in the rest of the article and in the definition, I believe the “or” to be implied.)

It’s from that definition that Clark extrapolates that many acts commonly referred to as plagiarism are not and, in most cases, are not unethical at all.

But is he right? Should we be giving a pass to those who use ghostwriters or recycle their own content? To me, it’s not so simple.

While I agree with much of his message, or what I believe his intended message is, his simplicity belies the complexity of the situation.

Plagiarism and plagiarism-related acts are not a cut and dry matter. Rather, they’re an ongoing conversation that will likely never end.

A Sea of Gray

When it comes to plagiarism, one of the most common questions I’m asked is “Is X plagiarism?”

The problem is that there is rarely a straightforward answer. On matters of plagiarism (and similar issues) there are certain things that are definitely unethical, such as Clark’s example of copying an entire chapter of a book without permission or attribution, and some that are completely safe, such as creating all-original content.

However, there’s a wide gap between those two things. There are many acts that might be acceptable or might not depending on a near-infinite number of variables.

Clark touches on this some, noting in his 8th item that writing in certain genres, such as legal and religious environments, have different standards of plagiarism than academia and literary when it comes to plagiarism.

But it’s not just about genres of writing. Other variables have an impact as well. For example, a politician giving a stump speech on a tour is expected to recycle content but that expectation changes when they are giving a big speech at a convention. Likewise, it’s often acceptable for lawyers to copy and paste in their briefs, but it becomes a different matter when a judge does it.

Furthermore, expectations and ethics can often depend upon who is involved. For example, I doubt that many would hold a high school student to the exact same standards as an experienced researcher.

Likewise, perceived injustice plays a role as well. A big company’s use of content from a small artist is viewed differently when the roles are reversed.

This problem is exasperated by the fact there is no plagiarism “court” to decide formally what is and is not plagiarism. Though copyright lawsuits often delve into plagiarism issues, there’s no crime of plagiarism and copyright does not cover every misdeed that is considered plagiarism.

The only place that even resembles such a court is academic tribunals and government agencies that investigate research fraud. However, they deal with a very specific area and, since there is no central authority, the rulings are often inconsistent between schools and organizations.

In short, defining what is and is not plagiarism is important, but it’s more important to determine where the ethical boundaries of plagiarism are and those lines seem to be drawn in perpetually shifting sand.

Looking at Clark’s Suggestions

Still, it’s important and worthwhile to take a look at Clark’s actual list of non-plagiarisms.

Though, obviously, I’m just one person, I wanted to provide my thoughts on the acts he lists and whether or not he’s right about them being non-plagiarisms (and non-ethical issues).

To do that, however, we have to take them each one at a time.

  1. Self-Plagiarism: According to Clark, self-plagiarism is acceptable so long as the publisher is aware. I would add that the audience should also be aware but, in those cases, it is acceptable to recycle content as long as no one is being deceived.
  2. Patch Writing: Patch writing, pulling passages from multiple sources with attribution to create a whole work, is terrible writing, but it isn’t plagiarism.
  3. Inadequate Paraphrasing: To me, this depends on the nature of the poor paraphrasing. If you barely rewrite something simply to avoid having to quote it, in most environments, that’s consideredplagiarism. Paraphrasing, by definition, means rewriting something in your own words. In many cases, inadequate paraphrasing is simply an attempt to mask lazy writing and plagiarism.
  4. Independent Creation: If you create something independently, especially something short, such as a short phrase, it’s not plagiarism. However, longer phrases and passages stretch the likelihood of independent creation.
  5. Allusion: Alluding to another source or a prior work is always tricky. But true allusion is not plagiarism. However, in some cases, it can be tough to draw the line and many plagiarists claim allusion or homage when caught.
  6. Boilerplate Text: This is a hot topic and is very open for debate. This depends heavily on the environment the text is being used in. Unattributed boilerplate text in a legal brief is different than such text in an academic paper.
  7. Ghostwriting: Similarly, ghostwriting is a hot-button issue that is very situation specific. A celebrity writing an autobiography is in a different position than a journalist writing a story.
  8. Different Genres: Genres, such as the legal field, have different rules on matters of attribution. That much is true, but it’s worth noting that in one of the fields he listed, sermons, there is still ongoing debate about this topic.
  9. Collaborative Works: Collaborative works such as newspapers, textbooks, etc. often pull in text from others that work on the same “team”. However, those authors are usually credited. Double bylines are not uncommon and most textbooks list many authors in them. There’s no reason all contributors can’t get their share of the credit. Failure to attribute to the standards of the genre and publisher certainly raises the spectre of plagiarism at the least.
  10. Copying General Ideas: Basically that to rediscover an old idea or run across it independently is not a plagiarism. As with independent creation, Clark is right, but proving this is often very difficult.

In the end, the problem I have with most of Clark’s list isn’t that he’s wrong, it’s that, as mentioned above, he’s trying to cast certain actions as being either always right or always wrong when, in truth, they’re governed by a complex set of ever-changing rules.

Simply put, you can’t paint the full picture of plagiarism and plagiarism-related ethics in broad strokes, which is a challenge nearly everyone who writes on the subject faces.

Bottom Line

Simply put, when it comes to plagiarism, there is no designated law or rule. Though there has been at least some effort to standardizing plagiarism punishments, the truth is that there are a million variables other than the act itself that get between a misdeed and the determination of whether or not it is widely considered a plagiarism.

In my career doing plagiarism analysis, I’ve seen a school President skate by when nearly half of their dissertation was copied without attribution and students nearly expelled for copying a single sentence.

This isn’t right and it’s unfair. I’d like to see the conversation of what is and is not plagiarism be centered more around the misdeeds rather than questions of who, where and when. But with such a subjective topic and so many differing views, consistency is almost impossible to find.

In the end, what I think is best about Clark’s efforts is that, even though I may disagree with him on some points, he’s working to forward the conversation and make it public. Historically, there hasn’t been much widespread discourse on this topic, much of the important conversation taking place behind closed doors, and articles like his can help to shed light on the conversation and encourage others to join in.

That, in turn, is what I’m hoping to do with this article and I hope still more people pick up the torch.

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