Plagiarism as a Social Norm

Why is it acceptable for a celebrity to use a ghostwriter when creating their autobiography, but not acceptable when a fiction novelist does the same? 

Why is it acceptable for Carolyn Keene to be a pseudonym for over a dozen authors penning Nancy Drew stories, but not ok for Cristiane Serruya to use ghostwriters when producing books with her name (outside the fact the books were plagiarized from other sources).

The answer is that plagiarism is complicated. While, in general, most people are strongly opposed to someone taking the work of another and claiming credit for it, but there are many exceptions to that rule.

In some types of programming, especially when there’s only one correct way to do something, copying code isn’t just a shortcut, it’s the norm. Many lawyers also copy and paste heavily in the legal documents in a bid to meet the criteria there.

However, when a programmer plagiarizes in a white paper or a lawyer in an article, the pitchforks come out anew

The reason for this is simple: Plagiarism is governed by social norms. Those norms change and shift not just from time period to time period, but from place to place and activity to activity. What is called out as plagiarism is often more defined by the expectation of the audience rather than the intent of the alleged plagiarist.

While this has many advantages, it also creates a great deal of confusion, as such norms are difficult to learn and easy to misunderstand.

Still, framing plagiarism in this light can be a great way to not only prevent plagiarism, but get some clarity out of a confusing mashup of rules and expectations.

Plagiarism is Not Copyright

As we have discussed many times before, plagiarism and copyright, though overlapping in some ways, are not the same. 

The most significant difference between is that copyright is a function of the law. As gray area as the law can be, especially in areas like fair use and determining what is “substantially similar”, the law is codified, written down and has tomes of case law behind it.

This has two key benefits. First, the law is mostly the same for all people and all kinds of works.  Second, though the law does change, it changes much slower and, usually, with some degree of fanfare.

Plagiarism, on the other hand, is a social norm. Attitudes about what is and is not plagiarism vary wildly depending on the situation, and they also change drastically over time. As we saw in the first “plagiarism” case, in 80 AD plagiarism was fine as long as the original author was paid. 

These days, a poet using a ghostwriter would likely still face backlash, regardless of how well their authors were compensated.

Simply put, the rules of plagiarism aren’t written down anywhere, even on this site, That’s because they can’t be written down. Those rules are internal to each of us and become social norms as we apply our individual opinions in larger numbers.

That, in turn, can make those norms almost impossible to follow, even for the best intentioned.

A New Framework

When you look at plagiarism through this prism, it becomes easy to see why there is confusion. Plagiarism standards are inconsistent, and most people find themselves navigating several different standards on a daily basis.

For example, a  student could write an article for their school paper, post content on social media and then turn in an assignment for their class, all three with different citation standards and norms.

In April 2021, researcher Jess L Gregory published an article entitled “Plagiarism as a Social Contract, a New Way to Approach Plagiarism”. The author looked at the issue of plagiarism through the lens of integrative social contract theory (ISCT) and found that, of the cases and papers they looked at, nearly all involved some lack of consensus on what the correct behavior should be.

This would often present as “cultural differences” or a need for “greater education” but essentially meant that the plagiarist did not fully understand what was expected of them and why. 

But, while schools teach citation standards, proper paraphrasing, good research habits and other anti-plagiarism skills, the social norm aspect of it often gets left out. Students come to understand what they are supposed to do in this specific setting, but rarely the why or how it connects with other things they do.

However, this issue is not limited to the classroom. In June 2012, just as the Jonah Lehrer scandal was breaking, many defended him as the earliest allegations centered around self-plagiarism, which is an action for which the social norms are much less settled than other kinds of plagiarism.

Though Jonah Lehrer was eventually brought down by other, more clear-cut allegations, the earlier allegations could have left him in something of a gray area, with no definitive social norm to either excuse or condemn his behavior.

So, what, if anything, can we do? There’s not much that can be done on the macro level. But there is work that can be done on a person-to-person basis to help clarify things in our classrooms and workplaces.

Bottom Line

One of the major challenges in dealing with plagiarism is the fact that it’s still something of a taboo subject to talk about. Though that taboo has broken up some due to high-profile plagiarism scandals, it can still be very difficult to have a meaningful conversation about the subject.

This is true even in classrooms, workplaces and other environments where plagiarism is considered one of the most egregious sins that one can undertake. It’s something that almost everyone agrees they should avoid, even if they are confused on the details as to what is and is not plagiarism.

Creating an environment where students and writers can openly discuss plagiarism with their teachers and editors would be a good first step. After all, you can’t rely on a shared social norm when it’s unclear if the norm is even shared. 

Helping others avoid plagiarism isn’t simply about stern warnings and plagiarism detection software, it’s about creating a culture when plagiarism and citation can be discussed without fear of reprisal. It’s about making sure everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and why.

In short, though social norms are set by humans in aggregate, they begin to shift and change with much smaller groups and more intimate conversations. 

That is something we can all do and something we can start today.

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