The Stupidity of Plagiarism

Creative Commons License photo credit: greyloch

One fact I’ve often repeated when giving lectures and in conversation with friends is that I’ve managed to detect, track and stop some 700 plagiarists of my work, all within the last 7 years or so. That’s an average pace of about 2 per week.

Though there hasn’t been what I would call a “typical reaction” to being found out, reactions range from denial, indignation to sweepingly apologetic, there has been one question I’ve been asked over and over “How did you find me?”

The assumption, I suppose, is that the Web is a huge place and they felt safe in their little corner of it. The problem, of course, is that even the tiniest corner of the Web is extremely public and can be easily found.

Plagiarism isn’t just a lie, it isn’t just cheating (in cases of contests or academia) and it isn’t just copyright infringement (in many cases), it’s also incredibly stupid.

Anyone who takes a moment to think about plagiarism will quickly realize that the odds of getting away with it, especially repeated plagiarism of text works, are effectively nil.

But if you need it spelled out, here’s the basic rundown of why plagiarism is a stupid thing to do, just in case you are seriously contemplating doing it.

It’s Called Google, Duh

Whether you’re a writer checking for plagiarists of your work, a professor checking students for cheating or an editor looking into misbehavior by employees, you already know well the power of Google.

If it is on the Web and not somehow made private, such as on closed forums, Google can find it and will do so eventually. No matter how out-of-the-way you might think your source or your reuse of it is, Google will know what it is and that enables anyone to backtrack it.

The process is very trivial and doesn’t need any special tools. All one has to do is punch in a unique phrase from one work and they can either find the duplicates or the source depending on what they’re trying to achieve. It only takes a few minutes to perform such a search and confirm the results.

Even better, I don’t actually check for my work. Google, through Google Alerts, does all the work for me. I simply set up the alert and Google is nice enough to email me when it detects a copy, plagiarized or not. I simply follow up.

But what makes plagiarism so laughably dumb is that many plagiarists use Google to find the material they want to copy. They understand the power of using Google to find material they want to claim as their own, but don’t understand that the same tool works in reverse.

This is comparable a bank robber using the bank’s security system to case the location but then walking into the bank not expecting that the camera’s would be used to catch them after the crime was done.

However, this isn’t to say that you’ll get caught every time you plagiarise, or even most times, just that it is easy for someone to do when properly motivated.

Russian Roulette

Despite the ease with which verbatim plagiarism and other copying can be detected, at least for textual works, most plagiarists don’t get caught on the first incident. The reason isn’t because they outsmarted the technology, but because no one was using the tools to check their work.

The simple truth is that, even in professional environments such as newspaper, few are motivated to do thorough checks of others works or actively look for plagiarism of their own content. Some of this is due to poor ethical judgement, some of it laziness but more often than not it is due to one being unaware of even the risk.

But people are becoming more aware. Colleges have widely adopted anti-plagiarism checking systems that largely automate the process of looking for copied text, newspapers may be slower to adopt but after the Jayson Blair and other scandals, are waking up. However, more importantly, authors online are becoming more aware of misuse and are actively searching for their works, including using tools like FairShare and Copyscape.

But even if we assume that the likelihood of being caught for plagiarism is extremely low, such as five percent, even a basic understanding of statistics shows that the odds of getting caught increases quickly the more you do it. Since few plagiarists, in my experience only plagiarize once or twice, the odds of getting caught increase significantly after a relatively small number of incidents. In fact, after about 20 incidents, your chances of going without being caught completely drops to less than half.

Plagiarism is, essentially, a form of russian roulette. Though your odds for each incident remain relatively constant, the more chances you take, the more likely the negative outcome will happen at least once.

However, it is all an unnecessary risk. The really stupid thing about plagiarism isn’t that it is easy to get caught and, for most, a practical inevitability. Rather, that there’s no point to it at all.

The Really Dumb Part

The plain truth is that, when one plagiarizes, they undertake a huge risk but gain almost nothing in return. The time it takes to provide attribution to content is insignificant compared to the time it takes to find the work in the first place.

Most instructors are happy to allow you to quote and paraphrase outside sources so long as you attribute them and most content creators are equally happy to allow you to use their work under the same rules, especially for education.

Taking two seconds to add an attribution line means nothing. Taking the extra moments to paraphrase and cite sources means almost nothing. The difference between a plagiarism and a good research assignment or a welcome use on the Web is often just a few more moments of time.

If you’re worried about the quality of your writing, not only does plagiarism not actually correct the issue, but your instructors, friends and readers, almost certainly, are aware of your struggles and will treat your sudden improvement with suspicion. This makes it far more likely your work will be scrutinized closely and you will be caught.

In short, if you are plagiarizing as a shortcut, you are wasting your time. If you are plagiarizing to cover up your own perceived deficiencies, you’ll more likely find yourself arousing suspicion.

Bottom Line

In my experience, people don’t become plagiarists because they are the best and the brightest. Though some smart people make mistakes, the majority of the worst offenders are simply idiots looking for a way to skate through an assignment, building a Web site or some other project. They don’t think their actions all the way through and, often, feel that they’ve done nothing wrong.

And that is the truly amazing thing about plagiarism. Despite all of the dire warnings, the lectures, the stiff penalties, many refuse to believe that it is an offense, inside or outside the classroom. After all, the second most common question is “What did I do wrong?”

When I was in the very early stages of my fight against plagiarism, I have to admit that seeing how widespread the problem is almost made me lost a lot of my faith in humanity. Hundreds of people taking credit for my writing, often in very stupid ways, can certainly have that effect.

But I’ve come to realize as I’ve gotten more involved that the hardcore plagiarists are the extreme minority and, while they do seem to have at least some issues with their ethics, the bigger problem seems to be one with their ability to think through their actions.

In short, plagiarists are not evil geniuses, at least on the whole. Whether it is out of panic, laziness or sheer stupidity, plagiarism is one of the dumbest ways a person can land themselves in trouble and its an offense that, even with the most basic evaluation, stops looking like a good idea.