From the very first time a child writes a school assignment all the way until the day they turn in their dissertation or thesis, a mantra is often-repeated: Don’t plagiarize, plagiarizing is stealing.
The plagiarism is theft narrative is an easy and effective one. After all, when you plagiarize another person’s work, you’re taking their work and claiming it as your own. Even if you aren’t physically taking the original work, you’re taking value from it and using it in a way that we, as a society, have determined is unfair.
When framed like this, plagiarism is easy to vilify. Even most young children know that theft is wrong. It’s intuitive and speaks to our base instincts on what is right and what is wrong. It’s so easy children see plagiarism is wrong before they turn five.
The problem is that framing device falls apart very quickly when exposed to the complexities of plagiarism. Sure, plagiarism is very often a theft with a plagiarist and a plagiarism victim. But oftentimes it’s not and, because of that, this presentation is limiting the ability of people, in particular students, from understanding the greater complexities and nuances of plagiarism.
However, a simple shift in the way we frame plagiarism can help fix that, make plagiarism easier for others to understand, and most importantly, stand up to scrutiny.
When Plagiarism is NOT Theft
In many, if not most, cases of plagiarism a theft (or something that can be argued to be a theft) certainly has occurred. There is a plagiarist that took the works of another and claimed it as their own, taking both undeserved credit for the work/creativity and gaining unjust benefit from that work.
Yes, often times the value of the ill-gotten gains can often be small, but it’s usually there and it usually does come at the expense of someone else, who is often unaware of the plagiarism.
However, that’s not always the case. Quite simply, plagiarism as theft requires that the plagiarized party not be a willing or enriched party in the transaction. There are plenty of times where that is not the case. Consider these:
- Essay Mills/Contract Cheating: There is little disagreement that using an essay mill is cheating and is plagiarism, but who is the victim? It’s certainly not the essay mill, who literally bases their business around selling essays for use in this way and license their content for such use, either expressly or implicitly.
- AI Writing: What if there’s no human that’s plagiarized from? AI writing is on the horizon and when humans start taking credit for work written by bots there’s going to be a long conversation about when and if that is considered plagiarism. That’s in large part because there is no direct victim, at least not in the traditional sense.
- Ghostwriting: Ghostwriting, generally, is not considered plagiarism though it meets the strict definition of plagiarism most people use. However, sometimes it is considered plagiarism and the separation comes down to audience expectation. Either way, if a ghostwriter knows they are working on a ghostwritten piece and agree to be a part of it, it’s difficult to argue that they are a victim of a theft. At worst, they are a collaborator.
In all of these cases, you have a plagiarism but no victim in the traditional sense of the word. You may have collaborators and co-conspirators, but no one involved is simply someone that was stolen from.
That creates a serious issue when trying to explain what plagiarism is and why it is wrong. If there’s no victim, there can be no theft. If there’s no theft, is plagiarism still wrong?
The answer is yes, but for a totally different reason.
Focusing on the Lie
As we discussed last year, there are two victims of most plagiarisms: The person who created the original work and the audience that was lied to.
But as we just went over, the original creator is not always a victim. Sometimes they are a collaborator, sometimes they’re not human and sometimes they’re just doing ethical ghostwriting.
So not every plagiarism is a theft, but every plagiarism IS a lie.
Every plagiarism is the plagiarist saying to their audience, “I created this, this is my work and, unless otherwise indicated, it is the fruits of my labor and creativity.” Sometimes that statement is only implied, as simple as putting one’s name on the work, other times it’s much more direct. However, it’s always there.
That lie might not even be intentional. Many people, especially students, don’t always realize that there’s a presumption of originality when turning in or publishing a piece. You see this a great deal with claims of, “I didn’t say it was mine, so it’s not plagiarism.” Likewise, they might think they altered text enough to make their claim of originality accurate, even though that’s not how paraphrasing works.
If we stop presenting plagiarism exclusively or even primarily through the lens of theft or stealing, it becomes much easier to explain these nuances. Poor paraphrasing didn’t necessarily make the student an unwitting thief, it made it so their promise of having original work was not met.
But it’s not just those students that such a shift might help. There are many good students, writers and creators out there that could use a little more clarity.
Clearing Up the Confusion
Changing the framing of plagiarism might be especially helpful for students that are learning English as a second or foreign language. Studies show that such students are just as opposed to stealing or taking credit for the work of another as those for whom English is their first language. However, they get accused of plagiarism far more often.
Much of that is because, while they are averse to stealing, they don’t understand the lying portion. Specifically, they don’t understand that, in academic English-language writing, there are certain citation standards that, if not met, give the work a presumption of originality that they may not have intended. In short, the audience’s expectation is different from the student’s.
The frustration for the student is understandable. They are called a thief simply for not understanding the, admittedly very complicated, standards they are being held to.
Another area this helps is with ghostwriting. Why do most celebrities ghostwrite novels with immunity but Cristiane Serruya, another would-be novelist, get blasted and even sued over it? Why is it OK for Nancy Drew to be little more than a series of ghostwriters but the world would react very differently if they learned that about Stephen King?
The ultimate reason comes down to audience expectation. The audience believed Serruya was the actual author of her books and she presented herself as such. She helped create that expectation. When a non-writer celebrity writes a book, it’s widely expected that they used a ghostwriter so, even without an explicit statement of ghostwriting, there’s no lie.
Yes, these are incredibly complex and nuanced conversations. Audience expectations can be unpredictable and it’s very easy to imagine a creator and their audience not understanding one another. However, you can’t even really begin to have these conversations if you view plagiarism primarily through the lens of theft.
So while the theft is often important, as my personal story shows, it’s often the best or most useful prism to view plagiarism through. When you start talking about the deeper and more nuanced aspects of plagiarism, it becomes practically useless and, with the current trends of contract cheating and AI writing, it’s not even holding up to basic scrutiny.
To be clear (and because someone will ask), this has nothing to do with the neverending debate about whether copyright infringement is also theft.
Copyright infringement is a violation of one of the multiple sets of commercial rights in a piece while plagiarism is an ethical violation in the attribution and citation of it. Though the two often have significant overlap, especially in cases like Serruya’s, a direct comparison is not appropriate.
Instead, this is a piece targeted mostly at teachers and parents as they introduce the concept of plagiarism to their students or help to deepen their understanding. Framing plagiarism is a theft is often accurate, but not very useful and it’s going to become even less useful as contract cheating and AI writing become growing problems.
However, even without those threats, the theft aspect of plagiarism is not as consistent nor as important as the honesty aspect. Framing plagiarism as a lie helps convey that better.
Plagiarism is complicated and we owe it to students and young creatives alike to explain it in a way that its both simplified and useful. The current framing, just isn’t doing it.
About the Author
Jonathan Bailey is a Copyright and Plagiarism Consultant from New Orleans. He not only speaks at conferences all over the world, including four of the International Plagiarism Conferences but he’ also been featured in countless publications including The Boston Globe, The Guardian, PBS MediaShift, The New York Times and the BBC. You can read more of his work at Plagiarism Today.
A version of this blog was originally published here