3 Reasons Smart People Plagiarize

I 'm starting to crack
Nina Matthews Photography / Amazing Photos / CC BY

Chris Spence was, until very recently, the Director of Education at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). However, last week he resigned amid a plagiarism scandal that started with an op-ed piece he had written for the Toronto Star and has since spread to his entire body of work, including his doctoral thesis.

(Note: If you want to read my coverage of the Chris Spence scandal, check out the article I wrote on it for the WriteCheck blog.)

However, Dr. Spence was just the latest in a long line of men who have had once-promising careers dashed by allegations of rampant plagiarism. Last year, Jonah Lehrer publicly and famously fell from prominence after it was discovered much of his journalism career was built upon plagiarism and other ethical misdeeds.

But while Spence and Lehrer may have been many things, they were not fools. They are both smart people who had their careers ruined by allegations of plagiarism. The same is true for Jayson Blair, Kaavya Viswanathan and more.

So why do intelligent people plagiarize? Even if we discount the ethics of plagiarism for a moment, there seems to be little reason for it. If you are capable of completing the task before you, why risk your career and your future by cutting corners on it?

The reasons aren’t straightforward and, in truth, we may never really know the answers. But, generally, intelligent people plagiarize for the same reason others do, because they feel it’s the best way to get the results that they want.

Outcomes Before Process

In a recent article in the Toronto Star regarding the Dr. Spence scandal, Jason Chu from Plagiarism.org, with whom I have done several webcasts, said it very well. Plagiarism, according to him, is about “Putting outcomes ahead of process.”

But the reasons why someone would put an outcome head of the process varies from person to person. Some feel that the process is unimportant, unfair, unnecessary or limiting. Others simply don’t care about the process and only see the outcomes as important.

But no matter the reasons one devalues the process, there’s little reason to violate it if you’re capable of following it. However, time and time again we find incidents of people who, from all appearances, should have no trouble completing the task at hand but take shortcuts at the risk of their education or their career.

After all, these are not first-year students that may not understand the risks of plagiarism or what plagiarism is, but rather, seemingly capable professionals who are risking everything for nearly nothing.

Problem 1: The Writing Issue

Just because a person is talented and intelligent does not mean that they are a great writer. It is possible for someone to be a magnificent scientist, educator, researcher, artist, musician, etc. without being a good writer.

We see this a lot in research as scientists who, by all accounts, do great work but struggle to write up their findings in a way that will be accepted. So, they often turn to ghostwriters or, even more unfortunate, to plagiarism.

But even if someone is capable at writing, they may not enjoy it and may start to seek ways to get out of it so they can focus on tasks that they prefer. Sadly, for those with more questionable ethics, this can lead to plagiarism, despite the obvious risks.

In the end, it’s unfair that we judge the capability of others so heavily by their writing but it’s a key part of how people in various professions communicate with one another, necessitating writing as part of a seemingly unrelated task.

As long as we require people who are not comfortable with writing to make it a major part of their job, plagiarism will continue to be a problem, even many others are able to meet the demands without turning to unethical behavior.

Problem 2: The Pressure Factor

People who are seen as more intelligent generally have more pressure placed upon them. Pressure to excel, pressure to get things done and pressure to pressure to be the best at everything they do, even when it is not practical.

Between the higher expectations, the time crunch placed on them due to higher demand and the need to keep up their appearances, people who are smart (or at least are seen as being smart) can often feel like they are stuck trying to meet unreasonable or impossible demands.

Furthermore, as with writing, being smart is no guarantee that one is also good at time and project management. Brilliant people often struggle to manage their schedules the same as anyone else.

While this isn’t an excuse, many people meet the same pressures without plagiarism, it’s another of the most commonly cited reasons for plagiarism by plagiarists and one that’s relevant to anyone, regardless of intelligence or success.

Problem 3: Hubris

When you are widely seen as one of the smartest people in the room and others are constantly telling you how great you are, it’s easy to believe that, no matter what you do, you can’t get caught.

While hubris doesn’t explain how people start plagiarizing, it may explain some of why people continue to do it and even build careers upon it.

This is especially true since few people are caught the first time they plagiarize, opening the door to a false sense of security that they can’t get caught if they do it again and again, even though they are gambling each time they do it.

This can lead to a certain comfort level with the act of plagiarism, a comfort that can come back to bite them when their career is under a microscope after a flaw has been exposed in their work.

Bottom Line

So why do the best and brightest plagiarize? For the same reasons as everyone else.

Just because a person is competent and capable doesn’t mean that they aren’t facing the same challenges as someone who is still learning and growing and that also doesn’t mean that some of them might not react in the same unfortunate ways.

In the end, the choice to plagiarize versus the choice to properly cite or create original work is one made less on the intelligence of a person but their ethics. Sadly, the best and brightest can routinely find themselves in situations that greatly test their ethics and some are going to fail.

After all, just because someone is smart doesn’t mean writing is trivial or that there is suddenly no pressure. If anything, these problems can be increased by being successful.

Combine those challenges with a failing in ethics, even just a brief one, and you have a recipe for a serious downfall of a once-respected character.

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