Back in 2006, Slate ran an article entitled “Dead Plagiarists Society: Will Google Book Search uncover long-buried literary crimes?”
The premise is simple: Google Book Search and other book digitization efforts are making it incredibly easy to search through the text of books that are centuries old. But, as a large part of human literary and research history come under the digital microscope, many are expecting revelations of text lifting to be levied against long-dead authors and researchers.
However, that hasn’t exactly happened. Though there has been no shortage of plagiarism scandals over the past five years, many of which I’ve chronicled here. They all, more or less, have been against recent plagiarists. Simply put, the interest in locating and reporting on plagiarism from decades or centuries ago is not there.
But should this be something we do? The answer is complicated but it seems there are good reasons to investigate, even if there is a strong temptation to let dead plagiarists rest in peace.
The Problem With Tracking Dead Plagiarists
When it comes to tracking dead plagiarists, there’s one simple problem: Finding them is very hard.
Going through a book or research paper for plagiarism is easy from a technical standpoint, but doing the human analysis to piece together exactly how much of the work is infringed and how much of it is not can be very difficult.
As someone who does plagiarism analysis as part of his consulting work, I can say safely that even a thorough analysis of a short work can take several hours. Longer works, such as novels, can literally take days of working time and often require multiple people.
Most cases of detected plagiarism start with a reader noting something familiar and/or odd and then investigating. Most cases where software first spots plagiarism stem from situations where it is run over a wide array of work, such as using a plagiarism checker in a newsroom or classroom, and then analyzed by humans later.
There is simply little motivation to go through large bodies of historical work and detect plagiarism as the rewards for doing so are slim. Though it might be tempting to go through and try to find dishonesty on important political figures/authors, without an ulterior motive there’s little to gain by catching a long-dead plagiarist as the deed has been done and all rewards/punishments long since reaped.
But is it something we should be doing and, if so, who should do it?
The Merits of Our Plagiarism History
While there isn’t a great deal to motivate an individual plagiarism hunter to go through most older works, society could benefit greatly from an understanding of plagiarism and how it has changed over the centuries.
A plagiarism analysis could show much more than who stole from whom, but also show hidden influences of authors, how the ideals of authorship have changed over the centuries and even reveal possible collaborations. In short, we could get a very unique and very rich understanding of our literary history, all in a way that we lack today.
However, we also risk dragging great literary and scientific names through the mud needlessly. It’s possible we could accuse great thinkers of plagiarism when their actions were completely acceptable in their time period. But even if they were acting unethically, we have to ask ourselves tough questions about if and how that changes our views of their works.
The other risk is that such research, especially if it found rampant plagiarism historically (even more so than already known), it could undermine current plagiarism education and work. If so many famous authors built careers in part on the back of plagiarism, why should a college student writing a term paper give it a second thought?
Still, the benefits still seem to far outweigh the risks, especially considering how much plagiarism is already known. This is a part of our literary and scientific history we need to understand in greater detail.
So who should do it? The answer seems simple. Colleges and universities are best poised to tackle this kind of research. With the tools, knowledge, personnel and interest in research, they have the most to gain and are in the best position.
Sadly though, few schools are interested in doing any research on plagiarism, largely because of the feared stigma of being “plagiarism college”.
In the end, it’s a shame that there isn’t more research done on the issue of plagiarism but, in this case, the issue may be moot. As we discussed previously, we are already aware of a lot of plagiarist authors from the past, including many famous ones. In fact, many were actually caught during their lives but, one way or another, managed to continue with their careers.
So, if this isn’t an issue worth researching, it’s likely not because there isn’t valuable information to glean, but because so much of the work has already been done.
Still, it would be nice to know how many others might be out there and what they could teach us about your written works. However, it’s a lesson we probably will never really learn.
Hat Tip: A big thanks to Mike Meyer from Meyer Consulting for the heads upon the Slate article.