Why it is Never the Right Time to Tackle Plagiarism

Yesterday, Alice Nuttall published a piece on Book Riot that asks a simple question: Why is publishing plagiarism still possible?

It’s a simple enough question. In an age with plagiarism-detection software widely available, heightened awareness about the issue and a seemingly-regular pattern of plagiarism scandals impacting publishers, why are so few working to prevent the problem in advance? Also, why are readers, ultimately, the ones responsible for spotting it after it gets out into the wild?

According to Nuttall, the answer is simple. She believes that publishing is so vast, that there would be no way to house a database with all the needed info. Furthermore, authors would be hesitant to upload their unreleased work to the internet, even just for a check.

However, that answer doesn’t really explain the issue. Turnitin, for example, has a database of over 91 billion web pages that goes back many years. As large as publishing is, the internet is much more massive, and it is easily searched. 

Likewise, authors may be hesitant to submit their work for a check, but if such a check were a requirement of their contracts, there wouldn’t be much choice.

Furthermore, the private libraries of publishers aren’t a huge obstacle either. Massive book digitization efforts already exist, both within publishers and outside them. If Turnitin can convince scholarly publishers to participate in iThenticate, then book publishers could easily craft their own system.

The technology and the law are both there to make this happen, yet publishers continue to operate on near-blind trust and semi-routinely pay for it. 

The real issue is that publishers, both large and small, have decided that this is not a problem worth investing time, energy and money into. For publishers, it’s simply much easier for them to not make combatting plagiarism a priority.

A Vicious Cycle

The issue isn’t just one with book publishers, it’s an issue with a wide array of institutions including universities, newspapers, scholarly journals and more. Any place that is responsible for publishing creative or scientific work is vulnerable to this thinking.

When there’s no active plagiarism issue, or only a small one, it’s easy to believe that there is no problem at all. Dedicating money, time and resources to a non-issue seems simply foolish. 

However, when there is a problem, such as a major plagiarism scandal, the organization becomes laser-focused on that one issue. Their goal is to handle the immediate issue quickly and effectively, not necessarily to prevent it from happening again.

Nowhere in this cycle is there space for the organization to sit down and sincerely evaluate their role in the matter and what steps they can do to address it. When you’re cycling between “no problem” and “immediate issue”, there’s not a real opportunity to look at it more holistically.

This makes it incredibly easy to frame the matter as “simply a handful of bad actors” and not examine the situation more complexly. After all, why evaluate potential changes when the issue is nothing more than a handful of bad actors that you probably couldn’t stop anyway?

Plagiarism Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

The truth about plagiarism is much more complicated. However, one thing to know with certainty is that plagiarism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This is especially true for published work that passes through many hands before being printed.

Plagiarism may be a solo act, but it becomes a temptation due to policies that students and authors may feel are unfair. It becomes likely due to poor education about citation standards and the rules of writing. It is permitted by a system that doesn’t check for the problem. And it is given a public stage by the publishers that print it.

While a publisher or other institution may not be able to control the actions of the individual, there are many steps that they can take to make the ground less fertile for plagiarism and to detect issues before they become public scandals.

These changes are wide-ranging. They include policies that discourage plagiarism from the outset, implementing tools to detect plagiarism in the pipeline and making standards and expectations for all involved abundantly clear.

While the problem of plagiarism can never be eliminated, it can be drastically reduced and managed. However, that requires a great deal of work and effort, effort that many are still unwilling to put in.

Bottom Line

In the end, the reason that there is still publishing plagiarism is that publishers, large and small, haven’t put in enough effort to stop it. That, in turn, is because they have little motivation to do so. 
It can be difficult to not only look at plagiarism as an issue, but to try and find ways that your organization may be unwittingly contributing to it. However, that kind of introspection is necessary if you want to address the matter. 

Simply put, book publishers are well behind the major academic publishers in this space. Academic publishers saw the problem and took steps to address it. Obviously, this hasn’t eliminated plagiarism from academic publishing, as a simple spin through Retraction Watch will show you, but it has reduced it greatly. 

Thanks to those efforts, most plagiarism stories in academia never require a retraction. They are caught early and not printed. Book publishing could have that, but have chosen not to invest the time and resources needed into it. 

To be clear, this problem is MUCH more severe in the world of self-publishing. However, that’s a completely separate issue with a different set of incentives. That, literally, needs an article of its own.
For traditional publishers, the problem of plagiarism isn’t big enough until it becomes a direct issue. But, when that happens, the focus is on the immediate issue, not the larger problem.

As such, it’s difficult to motivate many institutions into making the changes needed to combat plagiarism. Publishers included.