Plagiarism can often seem invisible.
Not only do plagiarists often go to great lengths to hide the activities but, even when it’s done in broad daylight, those that aren’t actively looking for it will usually miss it. It’s very easy to look around you and feel confident that you’re in a relative plagiarism-free zone.
But the truth is much different. Plagiarism is literally everywhere that there is creativity. It doesn’t matter what kind of work you create or how it’s created, if there is originally and expression, you’re likely to find plagiarism.
In the more than 15 years I’ve been running Plagiarism Today, we’ve discussed plagiarism in a wide variety of environments including knitting, board games, video games, flag design, API development, YouTube videos (not counting other copyright issues), poetry, podcasts, comic books, architecture, marketing and much, much more.
If there’s creativity in an industry, there’s a near-guarantee that there is plagiarism in it. That’s because, whenever there’s a barrier to creating something, whether it’s an essay or movie, you can rest assured someone will be there to take whatever shortcuts they can to create their own.
It’s a process as old as artistic expression and is likely to only grow and expand as we open up new creative outlets and new media to explore. However, understanding why this is the case isn’t just crucial to thinking about and detecting plagiarism, but finding ways to stop it before it happens.
The Why of Plagiarism
As Jason Chu of Turnitin once said, “Plagiarism is about putting outcomes ahead of processes.”
In short, plagiarist is someone who wants the outcome of having created something but doesn’t value or respect the process of creating that thing. In a simple example, a student who wants an A on a paper but doesn’t want to go through the trouble of actually writing such a paper may be tempted to plagiarize it.
To be clear, not every person that feels this way will be a plagiarist. Many students may not care about or see the value in writing an essay, but most will grit their teeth and do the work, either out of a sense of honesty or a fear of reprisal.
However, a student that values or even enjoys the process of writing an essay or completing an assignment will be much less tempted to plagiarize, regardless of their sense of honesty or how much they fear getting caught.
But while it’s easy to frame plagiarism in terms of the classroom, this is true across all types of creative media. Want to have written a series of books but don’t value the process of actually writing them? You might end up like Cristiane Serruya. Want to shoot a movie but don’t value the part of writing the script and storyboarding? Shia LaBeouf might be able to guide you.
But to creatives, this can seem alien. Why would you want to create something and not have it be original? Why would you want to put your name on something that someone else already made?
The reason is that we, as a society, value creators. Though, not always enough to avoid pirating their work, there is still a cult of celebrity placed around authorship and creativity. Whether it’s authors, filmmakers, musicians, artists, photographers or any other type of work, there’s a lot of appeal to being a creator.
That societal value is only matched by some people’s individual willingness to take shortcuts. In short, being a creative is very appealing, especially in the digital age when just about anyone can find an audience, but being creative requires a great deal of hard work and there are many that find that too high of a cost.
So How Do We Deter Plagiarism?
To be clear, you’ll see similar shortcuts wherever there is a work obstacle to completing a goal. Map makers, for example, hide false roads and towns to catch copycats, and antivirus makers do the same with their databases. If something takes a great deal of work and others find it desirable to create, you’re going to see copycats and plagiarists.
But how do we deter this action? How do we keep people from taking shortcuts when they know they shouldn’t?
To some degree, we can’t. Human nature is one of finding the path of least resistance and, no matter what we do, there will always be plagiarists trying to pass off the work of others are their own. We will always have to be vigilant against plagiarism.
But there is more that we can do. One element is to be honest about what it takes to create a work.
For example, this post, and ones like, do not spring fully formed from my mind. They often take hours or works, sometimes broken up over multiple days. Even for all of my typos and grammar mistakes, there is a great deal of editing, revision and preparation that goes into them as well.
However, that’s not something that people see. We have created a mythos around creativity where a great work is the product of a brilliant mind, not the toil of countless hours of hard, often dull, labor.
Creativity is not something that’s available on demand and it rarely bears any fruit of worth without being combined with hard work. However, we don’t talk about those elements and that sets up an unrealistic expectations for those who have never done it themselves.
How can we expect others to respect the process of creating something when we aren’t always open and honest about that process ourselves?
Our cult of creativity has minimized the work that goes into creating something and put the focus on an intangible spark or a mythical completely self-contained idea that sprang forth fully formed. Neither are true.
Creativity is work and, though more work does not equal better product, if we were more open about how works were actually created, others might feel less justified in skipping the invisible work or copying the elusive creativity.
The simple truth is this: Where there is creativity, there is plagiarism.
Plagiarism can and does happen in any field where it is easier to copy from those that came before you than it is to create your own work. Shortcuts will always have appeal and there will always be those that put outcomes ahead of processes.
But, if we were more transparent about our processes, that might not be the case as much. The mythos we have built around creativity is outright harmful and misleading to those that may want to experiment with it. While the idea of a creative spark or a bolt of genius makes creative people seem special or unique, it also makes some feel justified in skipping the mundane steps that lead to a created work.
If we want to reduce plagiarism, being honest about creativity is a good first step. It certainly won’t deter all plagiarists, maybe not even many, but at least it may deter some and, to those it doesn’t stop, it explains fully just why we find plagiarism so offensive.