5 Difficult Truths About Plagiarism

Difficult TruthIn 2014 plagiarism seems like it should be a solved problem. Not only is the software to detect plagiarism amazing, including tools for text, image, audio, video and software plagiarism, but public awareness of the issue is at an all time high including academic and professional plagiarism matters.

But there are a lot of aspects of plagiarism that can’t be solved with increased awareness and/or technology. The more quickly we accept those limitations, the more swiftly we can begin to address these challenges, minimize them and move past them.

Because, while it’s not easy to admit that there are limits to what human beings can do, those limitations are real and they have a major impact on plagiarism policies and plagiarism enforcement.

On that note, here are just five of the more difficult truths to accept about plagiarism and what they mean for the larger fight against it.

1. There Will Always Be Plagiarists

While it’s easier than ever to detect most forms of plagiarism and, in many arenas, the punishment for plagiarism is the greatest its ever been, there still are and there always be plagiarists.

While the goal of eliminating plagiarism is a noble ideal, it’s much like goals to “eliminate crime” or “get rid of poverty”, a noble, worthwhile goal that most likely can never be met.

The reason is that there will always be people who decide, most likely in a moment of weakness, that the risk is worth the reward. Whether it’s a lack of confidence in their work, disbelief in the importance of the project or just a simple desire to avoid doing the task at hand, some will see plagiarism as a worthwhile shortcut.

While education and enforcement are worthily and can certainly deter many from plagiarizing, thus drastically reducing the overall rate of plagiarism, they won’t stop everyone. Technology and enforcement just means that a higher percentage of plagiarists will be caught and will suffer more dearly for it.

As long as there is the ability to plagiarize, there will be plagiarists.

2. Many Plagiarism Cases will Remain Gray

With plagiarism, there are a percentage of cases that are very clearly plagiarism, a percentage of cases that are clearly not and a sizable percentage that are up for legitimate debate.

The reason is that there are a lot of rules in plagiarism that don’t have bright lines. For example: When is a work altered enough to be considered a paraphrase? When is a fact universal enough that it doesn’t need a citation? What is a common phrase in a field that doesn’t need a quote at all?

These are tough issues without clear answers. Reasonable people can and do disagree. You can not expect your standards or the standards of your group to be universally applied in many arenas.

This also means there will always be some level of subjectivity on matters of plagiarism, as hard as we try to make it more objective and fair.

3. There Will Always Be Cultural Differences

Attitudes toward plagiarism depend heavily on attitudes toward originality, authorship and intellectual property, among other things. Those attitudes change depending on where you go in the world and, as such, ideas about plagiarism are different as well.

But those attitudes do more than change from place to place, they are different from generation to generation and person to person. Historically, there has never been one correct view on these issues and, as such, there’s never been just one view on plagiarism.

While fields can and should create standards that are appropriate to them, they should know that those standards will not be universally accepted or followed. Many who do follow them will do so only begrudgingly while other may attempt to flout those standards and see nothing wrong with doing so.

4. The Law will Never Catch Up

While copyright and plagiarism certainly have a great deal of overlap, they also have a significant amount of difference. Though other areas such as fraud and contract issues land other plagiarists in hot legal water, the truth is most plagiarists face no legal repercussions.

That, in turn, is probably the way it will always be. Though plagiarism has long been an ethical offense, it’s rarely been a legal one. Part of this is because the legal system hasn’t made plagiarism an unethical act it needs to address directly and part of it is because, even when there is overlap, it’s rarely worthwhile to bring action against the plagiarist.

So, even if the law did magically turn all forms of plagiarism into a legal dispute, it most likely wouldn’t bring many more plagiarists to justice. It’s up to schools, industries and companies to build and enforce their own plagiarism policies.

5. Plagiarism Will Always Be a Difficult Topic to Discuss

One of the most important things I’ve tried to do with this site is encourage discussion about the issue of plagiarism, all types of plagiarism. Unfortunately, while it can be made easier to talk about, it will always be somewhat difficult no matter how important it is.

Part of this is because of fear. Given how ambiguous many elements about plagiarism are (see the second point) many people hold a fear that they are unwittingly a plagiarist. Furthermore, almost no one can claim to be completely clean on matters of plagiarism. Whether accidentally or on purpose, nearly everyone has done something at least gray area.

Nobody wants to be a plagiarist. No one wants to admit that they were fooled by a plagiarist. No one wants to admit that they, their organization or their industry has a problem with plagiarism.

However, the truth his that the plagiarism issue is almost universal. But due to the stigma attached to it, it’s almost impossible discuss it.

But while removing the stigma will help the issue, it won’t solve it. That’s because, on the flip side, many don’t fee that plagiarism is an issue at all, either that it is unimportant or not an issue for them.

Getting those who don’t see plagiarism as a problem to talk about it is nearly impossible, no matter how easy it becomes to approach the subject otherwise.

Bottom Line

Plagiarism will never be a “solved” problem. As long as it is human nature to try and take shortcuts there will always be people who choose to take the unethical ones, regardless of the risk.

Furthermore, plagiarism is always going to be a topic mired in gray areas and difficult to openly discuss in polite company. While it would be nice to believe we, as a society, can come together and solve this problem, coming together is difficult enough, especially when cultural differences drive us apart, but there’s probably no universal solution to be found.

Though I would love to “work myself out of a job”, plagiarism will be around long after I’m gone and there’s not much that I, or anyone else, can do about it.

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