If you take a survey and ask a diverse group of individuals whether it is acceptable for someone to take someone else’s work and pass it off as their own, nearly everyone will say no.
Pretty much everyone agrees that plagiarism is unethical. This transcends all cultures, ages and everything else that might otherwise divide us on this issue.
So why is it that plagiarism is often one of the most hotly-debated topics on the internet?
Right now, for example, fans are debating whether the K-pop band NCT Dream plagiarized BTS over a similar song title. In Alberta, Canada, a huge debate has erupted over whether a draft K-6 curriculum was plagiarized and in the case of Voice of America, editors actively disagreed on what was and was not plagiarism, delaying response to a plagiarism scandal.
If we nearly all agree that plagiarism is a bad thing, why is it often so difficult to agree on what is and is not plagiarism?
It’s easy to blame this issue on ethics and the fact that different people have different moral codes on such matters. However, the ethics of plagiarism are largely agreed upon, the debate is about what constitutes plagiarism.
To that end, there may never really be much agreement, especially in gray area cases. That’s because we all look at the problem from different angles.
Why Plagiarism Confounds
As we discussed before, there are two victims that must be considered when dealing with plagiarism: The person that was plagiarized from and the audience that was deceived. This is because every instance of plagiarism involves taking from one party and lying to another.
However, both collections of potential victims may have wildly different expectations. Creators run the spectrum on what they consider acceptable use of their work. Some actively create work to be plagiarized, such as with essay mills, turning them into a conspirator in the lie that follows. Others, however, take an extremely strict view and feel victimized even when the works only have a vague similarity.
Likewise, members of the audience often have significantly different expectations. If you’re reading a celebrity autobiography, you probably already suspect the work was ghostwritten. However, it’s possible another reader might not be aware of the common practice and take offense to it because they feel deceived.
So much of what we consider to be or not to be plagiarism operates in this way. Creators have to try and figure out what their audience expects from them as well as those that they pull from. They then have to try and meet or exceed those standards knowing full and well that there often is no set standard.
In some arenas, this is tackled through formalized norms. Journalists, researchers and filmmakers typically have rigid and formalized norms about when and how to cite to avoid plagiarism. That said, they aren’t always agreed upon with issues such as press release plagiarism continuing to cause divisions among journalists and editors alike.
However, in many areas, there aren’t such formalized norms. Whether you post on Facebook or are drafting a new fictional novel, there may not be a rigid set of standards to follow.
All you can do is follow the lead of others and try to follow the norms of the field. However, even then, it’s unlikely that everyone will agree.
Whenever we read a story about plagiarism, most people try to figure out how they would feel if they were either the person who was plagiarized or if they were in the audience for the work. Would they feel robbed? Would they feel lied to? Etc.
However, without rigid norms, there’s going to be a lot of disagreement because everyone’s expectations are different.
To make matters worse, most public-facing plagiarism scandals involve celebrities, politicians or other public figures that people already have an attachment to. Often times, the stance one takes on a plagiarism scandal says more about how they feel about the person at the center than it does
Simply put, people are more likely to defend the actions of someone they like and condemn the actions of someone they dislike, regardless of the facts of the case. That’s because so much of plagiarism centers around feelings and how one perceives the wrongdoing.
Supporters of a celebrity or a politician are more likely to dismiss an allegation of plagiarism simply because their pre-existing feelings change the way they look at the allegations. For those that hate the person, the opposite is true.
And that, in turn, really gets to the crux of it. Since there is little objective agreement on what is or is not plagiarism, much of the debate winds up centering on feelings. Would I feel like a victim if it were my work that had been copied? Do I feel betrayed as a consumer of this work? Etc.
However, feelings are very subjective, and they are easily colored by preexisting emotions. While we can all agree objectively that plagiarism is wrong, there is often no objective definition of what is plagiarism, leaving the question open to interpretation.
And that is where the problem ultimately lies.
Agreeing that plagiarism is wrong is very easy. With only rare outliers, we all do that already. However, agreeing what is or is not plagiarism is much more difficult.
Every type of work has a different norm, every person has different feelings on what constitutes plagiarism and there is often no rule book we can go to for a definitive answer.
While none of this really matters in the court of law as copyright has its own standards and boundaries that are separate from the ethical ones set up by plagiarism, it matters a great deal in the court of public opinion.
Jonah Lehrer, for example, was never sued for copyright infringement. His punishment was purely public and industry driven. However, that same public and industry allowed Benny Johnson to keep working despite multiple problems.
That kind of inconsistency is to be expected with this. Not because we don’t agree plagiarism is wrong, but because we are human, and we don’t do very well when trying to make decisions with our feelings.