The narrative around plagiarism is often extemely simplified: There is a plagiarist and there is a victim.
It’s a simple and compelling narrative. There is a bad person that has stolen or lifted from a good person by using their work without the decency of at least giving them proper credit.
It’s a visceral and personal kind of theft, one that often feels more akin to identity theft than copyright infringement (which is the most common legal consequence, when there is one). Victims of plagiarism have every right to be angry and upset and society is right to throw support behind them.
However, simple narratives rarely tell the full story, especially with an issue as complicated and nuanced as plagiarism. Focusing as heavily as we do on the plagiarism direct victim not only misunderstands the nature of plagiarism, but risks giving a free pass to certain kinds of “victimless” plagiarism.
The truth is that there isn’t just one victim of most plagiarisms, there are two and it is time for that second victim to stand up and be heard. After all, they’re the ones being most directly lied to and the ones that may not realize they’re being misled at all.
The Second Victim of Plagiarism
Plagiarism, at its most fundamental level, is a lie. It is the taking of works or ideas of others and passing them off as your own, either directly or indirectly. The misdeed itself is in the lie, the “I created this” when it is known to be untrue.
However, that lie isn’t being told to the original victim. It’s a lie about the victim, claiming that they didn’t create it or their contributions didn’t matter, but it’s not a lie to them. Instead, it’s a lie to the audience, which is the second victim and the actual target of the con.
A plagiarist doesn’t hope to fool their source. They know the source will recognize their work and plagiarists will often go to great lengths to hide their falsehoods from those they lifted from.
Instead, plagiarists attempt to fool the audience. They are trying to deceive whatever their target audience is whether that’s just one teacher in a classroom or the world at large. They are saying to that audience “I created this” and hoping that the audience trusts them and believes it even though it is untrue.
Yet, even though the audience is the party being lied to, we don’t often think how that lie impacts them. Instead, the focus is heavily placed on the original source. For example, when a journalist copies from other papers, as with Jayson Blair, they become a pariah. However, press release plagiarism is common and often very much tolerated under the misguided belief that there is no victim.
To the audience, this misdeed is the same. The reporter is presenting their article as a work of their writing and instead weaving in content from other people. In the case of press release plagiarism, it’s content from a clearly biased source that is being presented as supposedly independent reporting and analysis.
However, it’s not just journalism where this problem is relevant. Anywhere you can find a willing plagiarism victim, you can find a debate about whether it is plagiarism or not.
Essay Mills, Ghostwriting and More
There are two problems with putting so much emphasis on the original victim of plagiarism when discussing it:
- It ignores the intent of plagiarism. Plagiarists don’t aim to steal from others, but to fool an audience. They want to have created something without putting in the work. It was never about the victim.
- It excuses a wide variety of plagiarisms, even if the deception is exactly the same or even worse.
A good example is an essay mill. If a student buys a paper from an essay mill and submits it, the deception is the exact same as if they’d copied the paper from Wikipedia. The only difference is that the plagiarist went to much greater lengths to obtain the work and hide their misdeed. The plagiarism is no longer impulsive and stupid, but cold and calculating.
Yet, many ignore this or call it something other than plagiarism. The student is still presenting the work of someone else as their own. It doesn’t matter if the original author gives their approval, the fundamental lie is unchanged and there is still a very real victim.
Ghostwriting produces many of these same issues but with more complexities. There are many times that ghostwriting is perfectly acceptable as the audience has no expectations of originality. We all know that politicians don’t write their own speeches and celebrities rarely write their own books. The authorship in those cases is more of a “wink and a nod” than true declaration of originality.
Compare that, for example, to the Cristiane Serruya (Copy Paste Cris) plagiarism scandal. There, a prolific romance author was caught plagiarizing significant portions of her book and, when confronted, blamed the issue on her ghostwriters.
However, rather than placating the audience, the admission of using ghostwriters actually angered them more. With romantic literature, the audience expectation is that the author is either the person who wrote the book or a pseudonym for the person who did. The idea of using ghostwriters is outright offensive to that audience.
Though audience expectation can be difficult to predict, social and intellectual norms have formed over time. We’re not surprised to hear that Terry Bradshaw or Leslie Nielsen used a ghostwriter for their books, but if it were revealed that JK Rowling or Stephen King had done the same, it would be a major shock and cause massive upheaval.
The difference is whether the audience has been misled. If the audience knows the truth and accepts it, there is no plagiarism as there is no deception and no victim. If the audience is misled, it is a plagiarism, even if the original author was fine with not being credited.
As a person who got his start in plagiarism and copyright because he was a repeated victim of plagiarism, I too have struggled to see the other side of the coin. When you’re in a blind rage because you’ve found ten years worth of work posted online under someone else’s name, it’s difficult to care about what the audience thinks.
However, we’ve all experienced situations where someone we followed, knew or otherwise trusted wasn’t who they said they were. We’ve all felt that kind of betrayal. It may not be the personal and visceral betrayal of having your work plagiarized, but it’s a betrayal felt by many more people.
To make matters worse, the way we comfort those that are plagiarized amplifies the problem. Expressions such as “Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery” not only trivializes the act of plagiarism itself, but omits the fact, depending upon the nature of the plagiarism, many other people were likely lied to and deceived.
Furthermore, it’s also a lie. Plagiarists are looking for the path of least resistance and seek out works that are adequate for their purpose, not necessarily the best that they find. Works are chosen more on their accessibility and usefulness rather than their quality.
It’s a sad truth but plagiarism harms everyone that’s not the plagiarist and, by ignoring that fact, we’re excusing some abhorrent behavior and not really grasping what plagiarism is about.
After all, a plagiarist isn’t someone who wants to steal your valuables, but someone that wants to fool the world. It’s time we see that for what it is.