2021 will mark the 16th year I’ve run Plagiarism Today and the 21st year I’ve been studying plagiarism. Though, when I started, I thought it would just be a diversion for me, the topic of plagiarism and content misuse broadly is endlessly fascinating.
Whether it’s the overlaps and differences between copyright and plagiarism, the mindset of those taking shortcuts or the technology used to spot similar works, it’s been and continues to be a fascinating journey.
While I expected to learn a lot of things there were some that caught even me off guard. The truth is, when you study plagiarism, you learn a lot about people in general.
After all, plagiarism is a bizarre misdeed. It is both broadly seen as unethical and still extremely common. Trying to reconcile those two things says a lot about the human experience.
To that end, here are five strange things that I’ve learned through studying plagiarism.
1: People Can Be Ridiculously Lazy
The depths of human laziness can often be seen in a plagiarism analysis.
Though many plagiarists will copy wholesale to avoid doing a significant amount of work and others will even put a great deal of effort into hiding their misdeeds, some of it is just… sad.
I’ve seen business websites where basic FAQs were plagiarized wholesale, academic papers where the plagiarism where single sentences were copied and left completely uncited (even though they easily could have been legitimate quotes) and countless other instances of bizarrely lazy plagiarism.
There are many times where the work required to create something is minimal, but plagiarism is that little bit easier, so they go that route. Two decades later and I still find it amazing how quickly some people are to turn to plagiarism just to avoid a few keystrokes.
2: Everyone Thinks They’re a Writer… Until They Have to Write
Writers often don’t get a lot of respect. It’s seen as a job that anyone can do and that doesn’t require a lot of skill.
However, a lot of cases of plagiarism come from people who aren’t writers being asked to write content. Whether it’s a student being told to write a paper, an entrepreneur that needs to fill out their new businesses’ website or an employee asked to draft a document.
There’s an assumption among many that writing is easy, but it isn’t a talent everyone has. To make matters worse, many of those that are solid writers don’t enjoy it or even hate it.
A lot of plagiarism comes from non-writers being given a writing task. While that doesn’t excuse the plagiarism, it provides insight into why some people commit plagiarism and how, in some cases, we may be able to prevent it.
3: There Are Almost No One-Time Plagiarists
When a plagiarist is caught, especially if the plagiarism was clearly malicious, it’s safe to assume that they have done it before.
There’s a broad narrative of good students and good writers being tempted to the dark side through extenuating circumstances. While that does happen, it’s exceedingly rare.
The reason is simple: Most plagiarism isn’t caught.
The odds of a one-time plagiarist getting caught, even in an academic setting, are low. Most acts of plagiarism aren’t caught timely, if ever. As such, once a plagiarist is spotted, as was the case with Jonah Lehrer, there will inevitably be more ghosts in the closet.
The opposite holds true as well. Giving former plagiarists a second chance is risky at best. We’ve seen repeatedly as plagiarists get a second chance only to either plagiarize or commit other ethical violations.
Plagiarism is rarely a one-off thing, and most can’t even stop once they’ve been caught.
4: Plagiarism is Rarely a Solitary Misdeed
Plagiarism is often the canary in the ethics coal mine. It’s an ethical misstep that, though often not detected, is still the easiest to detect. When one catches a plagiarist and starts to dig into their prior works, one often finds many other misdeeds.
This is especially true in journalism. Jayson Blair was caught for plagiarism but had also fabricated stories and Jonah Lehrer was much the same. Likewise, Benny Johnson was first fired for plagiarism but went on to a journalism career that included abuse of power and publishing false stories.
At its most fundamental level, plagiarism is a lie. It’s saying that you wrote or created something that you didn’t. Those that lie rarely tell just one type of lie. Furthermore, once you’ve excused one lie ethically, it’s easier to excuse others.
5: However, We’ve All Probably Plagiarized
All that being said, there’s no working definition of plagiarism that doesn’t make everyone a plagiarist at some point or another.
This is especially true in our modern media environment where we face a confusing web of citation standards and ethical norms that often make little sense.
When is it OK to share a meme without citation? How much is too much to copy before you need to quote something? What about Cryptomnesia?
If plagiarism is the presenting of someone else’s work and not citing it up to the citation standards of the field, then we’ve all done it. Either accidentally or intentionally. Even if you don’t think you’ve committed plagiarism, someone else does as many of these standards change from person to person.
It’s an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless.
Plagiarism isn’t just about the act of copying someone else’s work and presenting it to your own. It’s a look into why people take unethical shortcuts, how we define social norms and how we come to draw our personal boundaries.
Studying plagiarism has taught me more about humanity than I ever imagined it would and this is just some of what it told me.
While humans are certainly capable of doing much worse to one another than plagiarizing, when we look at the hows and whys of the smaller infractions, we gain insights on the bigger ones.
In that regard, plagiarism is a mirror held up to all of us and that is a frightening prospect indeed.