All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


Plagiarism is commonly defined as the unauthorized or unacknowledged appropriation of the words, graphic images, or ideas from another person. As such plagiarism can be a violation of intellectual property rights, although it is not in all cases illegal. It is in fact one of the most serious general issues in the practice of scientific scholarship, in part because its precise boundaries are not always easily determined and because concepts of plagiarism have evolved considerably over time. Opportunities for plagiarism and efforts to deal with it have also altered in conjunction with technological change.

Plagiarism overlaps yet is distinct from copyright infringement; the latter can occur with proper attribution, while plagiarism cannot, and the latter generally occurs with the failure to obtain permission to use copyrighted material (Lindey 1952). Further, while definitions of copyright infringement are based on statute, definitions of plagiarism—and their resultant interpretations—vary considerably across institutions (Myers 1998). According to a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine (1995), plagiarism and the falsification and fabrication of data or results constitute three forms of deceptive scientific misconduct that impede scientific progress as well as endanger foundational scientific norms. Data obtained from National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health investigations into allegations of misconduct in the late 1980s and early 1990s suggest that plagiarism is the more common of these three (LaFollette 1992).

Historical Emergence

One interpretation of the evolving perspective on plagiarism holds that plagiarism was not discussed as an ethical issue until after the rise of individualism during and especially after the Renaissance. For instance, classical authors sometimes copied from each other without explicit acknowledgment, and occasionally attributed their own works to another author (a kind of reverse plagiarism) because they saw them as part of a tradition better represented by someone else. There are a number of pseudonymous works of Plato and Aristotle, and the first five books of the Bible, although attributed to Moses, were almost certainly written by someone else. In the area of graphic representation, all works of art from the studio of a master were commonly attributed to that master.

Such a view is nevertheless complicated by multiple factors, including classical understandings of originality, which significantly influenced sixteenth-century Italy and France (White 1935). Greek and Roman authors prized the imitation of previous works and considered established subject matter a common inheritance. Imitation was not synonymous with copying or piracy because classical authors often earned respect by identifying their esteemed sources. Further, established works were to be judiciously selected and reinterpreted via one's own experience specifically to expand and even surpass their prior treatment. To explain their notions of originality, classical writers such as Seneca and Plutarch used the metaphor of the bee, which draws nectar from many flowers yet transforms these into an altogether new creation. The classical notion of originality has influenced the modern scientific enterprise, as has the classical authors' general (though not universal) disdain for unattributed sources (White 1935).

The value placed on imitation also influenced literary and nonliterary texts written in early modern England (c. 1500–1800), a period in which views of plagiarism varied widely, from ethically venerable to venial or vile (Kewes 2003). This range of reactions stemmed in part from the complex interactions between plagiarism and "imitation, borrowing, adaptation, allusion, intertextuality, appropriation, copyright infringement," and other concepts (Kewes 2003, p. 2). Genre and intellectual context also mattered. For instance, some seventeenth-century religious figures did not acknowledge their debt to sources they copied or received inspiration from as they felt those covert sources could strengthen the power of their sermons. During the same period, Robert Boyle (1627–1691), often considered the father of modern chemistry, reprimanded those who had appropriated his experimental work without full attribution.

Technology shaped plagiarism perspectives considerably. General public disapproval of unacknowledged copying across contexts increased when printed texts (as opposed to handwritten ones) became more commonplace, in part because of publishers' desire to secure revenue. Moreover, after 1750 the value on imitation declined not coincidentally with an increased emphasis on originality (Kewes 2003) and the growth of individualism.

Contemporary Issues

Plagiarism is also a contemporary cultural issue. Because originality and individualism are viewed through cultural norms, perceptions of plagiarism vary widely across cultures and often contrast with the predominant Western view, especially among cultures that emphasize the community over the individual. Thus, in certain cultures "using the words and ideas of others without attribution is considered a sign of deep respect as well as an indication of knowledge" (Lunsford 2004, p. 169). By contrast, normative views in Europe and North America are embedded in the very origin of the word plagiarism, which derives from the Greek plagios, meaning crooked or treacherous, from which comes the Latin plagiarius, meaning kidnapper. Because the vast majority of scientific gatekeeping and production originates in Europe and North America, it is these notions of plagiarism and intellectual property that have been widely disseminated across cultures. Whether this dissemination constitutes linguistic and cultural hegemony has been debated (e.g., see Myers 1998; Scollon 1995).

Beyond its cultural aspects, plagiarism in the early twenty-first century is complicated by the difficulties in identification as well as the role of technology. Although identifying plagiarism may seem straightforward, context matters. For instance, paraphrased or summarized common knowledge does not require attribution, yet what is considered common knowledge varies among audiences. Further, whether the smallest unit of plagiarism should be the paragraph, sentence, or the phrase is open to debate (e.g., see St. Onge 1993). Also, if plagiarism is a deceptive form of scientific misconduct, it is important—yet sometimes complicated—to determine whether an act was malicious or unintentional.

Identifying plagiarism can also be intricate because scientific and technological works are frequently collaborative creations, with shaping influences from colleagues, coauthors, peer reviewers, journal referees, and editors. Although guidelines to distinguish various contribution levels help determine who should be referenced, acknowledged, or listed as a coauthor, these guidelines are far from universal (see NAS, NAE, and IOM 1995). Some researchers would define a given contribution as worthy of coauthorship, whereas others would classify the same contribution as worthy only of acknowledgment (see Buzzelli 1993).

Technological changes have created additional opportunities for plagiarism as well as its detection. For instance, multisite research collaborations involve significant electronic information sharing, which increases the amount and availability of information that can be plagiarized. Additionally, individuals raised with free Internet music, software, and other information have grown accustomed to easily accessible information, which may engender attitudes regarding plagiarism that differ from the previous few generations. The same information technologies that can facilitate plagiarism, however, are being used to expose plagiarists; Internet-based plagiarism prevention and detection services compare electronically submitted texts against massive information databases to identify unoriginal material.

Perhaps in part because contexts, definitions, and interpretations of plagiarism vary, consequences for plagiarizing also vary. Generally, cases of proven plagiarism can involve demotion, job loss, and varying degrees and types of loss of respect and ostracism from one's own field. Marcel C. LaFollette (1992) tells of a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health whose early-career plagiarism was detected, leading to his resignation from his academic positions and, several months later, reinstatement based on the merits of his overall career contributions. In another case, an award-winning malaria researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health was accused of plagiarizing portions of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. After an investigation by both Harvard and the federal government's Office of Research Integrity, the accused assistant professor resigned and became ineligible to apply for federal funding for three years (Glenn 2004). A Spanish journal of micropaleontology stopped accepting manuscripts indefinitely from a researcher who for twenty years had allegedly plagiarized pictures of diverse organisms from other publications (Bosch 2004).

Consequences become particularly complex with plagiarism accusations between colleagues of different ranks. When a graduate student at Arizona State University accused his acclaimed mentor in plant biology of copying part of his work, the mentor stated that such practices were common in science and that he was justified because the graduate student was part of his research team. One-third of the mentor's article was reportedly taken directly from the student's work, which itself had appeared in an earlier publication. Shortly after the student contacted the editor who published his mentor's work, the student indicated that he experienced exclusion from major research projects. The mentor is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, formerly served on the editorial board of the journal Science, and was appointed by President George W. Bush to the President's Council on Science and Technology (Bartlett and Smallwood 2004b). In addition to the issue of power inequity between accuser and accused, rendering judgment in this case may have been complicated by the possibility that the university committee charged with the investigation perceived the reputation of the mentor (their colleague) as inextricably tied to the university's reputation. The consequences of plagiarism have become of increasing interest in an era in which a significant portion of scientific research is supported by public funds (Miller and Hersen 1992). Whether plagiarism is common or rare in science and technology research is a topic of debate (see LaFollette 1992, Miller and Hersen 1992, Bartlett and Smallwood 2004a).

Closely related to the issue of consequences are the mechanisms for addressing plagiarism allegations. Controversy exists over whether plagiarism cases should be handled by government agencies, university or other presses, professional societies, the legal profession, academic institutions, or some combination of these, and many are handled according to the specific attributes of the case. Because of the potential enormity of legal expenses, some professional societies have expressly refused any involvement in prosecuting plagiarism cases, and universities may also be wary of the costs of legal action (see Glenn 2004).


SEE ALSO Misconduct in Science.


Bartlett, Thomas, and Scott Smallwood. (2004a). "Four Academic Plagiarists You've Never Heard Of: How Many More Are Out There?" Chronicle of Higher Education 51(14): A8.

Bartlett, Thomas, and Scott Smallwood. (2004b). "Mentor vs. Protégé." Chronicle of Higher Education 51(14): A14.

Buzzelli, Donald E. (1993). "Plagiarism in Science: The Experience of NSF." Perspectives on the Professions 13(1): 6–7.

Glenn, David. (2004). "Judge or Judge Not?" Chronicle of Higher Education 51(14): A16.

Kewes, Paulina, ed. (2003). Plagiarism in Early Modern England. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

LaFollette, Marcel C. (1992). Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lindey, Alexander. (1952). Plagiarism and Originality. New York: Harper.

Lunsford, Andrea A. (2004). The Everyday Writer, 3rd edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Miller, David J., and Michel Hersen, eds. (1992). Research Fraud in the Behavioral and Biomedical Sciences. New York: Wiley.

Myers, Sharon. (1998). "Questioning Author(ity): ESL/EFL, Science, and Teaching about Plagiarism." Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language 3(2): 1–21.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and Institute of Medicine (IOM). Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (1995). On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Scollon, Ron. (1995). "Plagiarism and Ideology: Identity in Intercultural Discourse." Language in Society 24(1): 1–28.

St. Onge, K. R. (1993). "The Threshold of Plagiarism." Perspectives on the Professions 13(1): 2–3.

White, Harold Ogden. (1935). Plagiarism and Imitation during the English Renaissance: A Study in Critical Distinctions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Bosch, Xavier. (2004). "Plagiarism in Paleontology." Scientist September 22. Available from

views updated


The act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one's own creation.

Plagiarism is theft of another person's writings or ideas. Generally, it occurs when someone steals expressions from another author's composition and makes them appear to be his own work. Plagiarism is not a legal term; however, it is often used in lawsuits. Courts recognize acts of plagiarism as violations of copyright law, specifically as the theft of another person's intellectual property. Because copyright law allows a variety of creative works to be registered as the property of their owners, lawsuits alleging plagiarism can be based on the appropriation of any form of writing, music, and visual images.

Plagiarism can take a broad range of forms. At its simplest and most extreme, plagiarism involves putting one's own name on someoneelse's work; this is commonly seen in schools when a student submits a paper that someone else has written. Schools, colleges, and universities usually have explicit guidelines for reviewing and punishing plagiarism by students and faculty members. In copyright lawsuits, however, allegations of plagiarism are more often based on partial theft. It is not necessary to exactly duplicate another's work in order to infringe a copyright: it is sufficient to take a substantial portion of the copyrighted material. Thus, for example, plagiarism can include copying language or ideas from another novelist, basing a new song in large part on another's musical composition, or copying another artist's drawing or photograph.

Courts and juries have a difficult time determining when unlawful copying has occurred. One thing the plaintiff must show is that the alleged plagiarist had access to the copyrighted work. Such evidence might include a showing that the plaintiff sent the work to the defendant in an attempt to sell it or that the work was publicly available and widely disseminated.

Once access is proven, the plaintiff must show that the alleged plagiarism is based on a substantial similarity between the two works. In Abkco Music, Inc. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd., 722 F.2d 988 (2d Cir 1983), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found "unconscious" infringement by the musician George Harrison, whose song "My Sweet Lord"was, by his own admission, strikingly similar to the plaintiff's song, "He's So Fine." Establishing a substantial similarity can be quite difficult as it is essentially a subjective process.

Not every unauthorized taking of another's work constitutes plagiarism. Exceptions are made under copyright law for so-called fair use, as in the case of quoting a limited portion of a published work or mimicking it closely for purposes of parody and satire. Furthermore, similarity alone is not proof of plagiarism. Courts recognize that similar creative inspiration may occur simultaneously in two or more people. In Hollywood, for example, where well-established conventions govern filmmaking, this conventionality often leads to similar work. As early as 1942, in O'Rourke v. RKO Radio Pictures, 44 F. Supp. 480, the Massachusetts District Court ruled against a screenwriter who alleged that a movie studio had stolen parts of his unproduced screenplay Girls' Reformatory for its film Condemned Women. The court noted that the similar plot details in both stories—prison riots, escapes, and love affairs between inmates and officials—might easily be coincidental.

Sometimes the question is one of proper attribution. In January 2002, two highly regarded historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, were accused of plagiarism in The Weekly Standard. The magazine revealed that Ambrose (who died in October 2002) took passages from another author's work and used them in his 2001 book The Wild Blue, while Goodwin used passages from several authors in her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Both authors apologized, acknowledging that they had erred and adding that their failure to provide proper attribution was completely inadvertent. Goodwin went so far as to address her mistakes in an essay in Time magazine. They agreed to correct the problem in future editions of the books in question. While some of their colleagues accepted the explanation, others questioned whether authors of such talent and prominence were in fact being disingenuous considering that both had borrowed numerous passages, not just one or two.

The internet has added a new layer to the question of plagiarism, particularly among high school and college students. In the mid-1990s a number of Web sites cropped up that offered term papers, thesis papers, and dissertations for sale. These "paper mills" make it easy for students to purchase papers instead of writing their own. (The fact that many of the papers being sold are poorly written and minimally researched is apparently of little concern.) A similarly egregious problem results from the wide array of legitimate reports many Web sites make available on the Internet for research purposes. Unscrupulous students with a computer can easily copy large blocks of these reports and paste them into their own papers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while the ease of copying information has not led to a dramatic increase in plagiarism among honest students, those who have already cheated are likely to make frequent use of electronic resources to continue cheating. Students who use the "copy-and-paste" writing method are being thwarted by instructors who simply type questionable phrases into search engines; if the passage exists in another paper, the search engine will probably find it.

further readings

Keyt, Aaron. 1988. "An Improved Framework for Music Plagiarism Litigation." California Law Review 76 (March).

Lewis, Mark. 2002. "Doris Kearns Goodwin and the Credibility Gap." Forbes (February 27).

Mayfield, Kendra. 2001. "Cheating's Never Been Easier." Wired (September 4).


Copyright; Literary Property; Music Publishing; Publishing Law.

views updated

PLAGIARISM [From Latin plagiarius a kidnapper, literary thief]. The appropriation of someone's artistic, musical, or literary work for personal ends. Because most artists are affected by other artists, it is not always easy to decide where legitimate influence ends and plagiarism begins. The term is usually reserved, however, for the flagrant lifting of material in an unchanged or only slightly changed form and its dissemination as the plagiarist's own work. In oral and scribal societies, most performers ‘plagiarized’, in the sense that they borrowed material but failed to identify their sources. It is unlikely, however, that this interaction was considered reprehensible. In addition, insofar as educational institutions invite students to model themselves on others, a degree of plagiarism and pastiche are built into the acquiring of creative skills. The concept of plagiarism as a serious legal offence became clear-cut with the growth of printing and the establishment of authors and publishers as people and institutions with property rights. See DERIVATIVE QUOTATION.

views updated

pla·gia·rism / ˈplājəˌrizəm/ • n. the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. DERIVATIVES: pla·gia·rist n. pla·gia·ris·tic / ˌplājəˈristik/ adj.

views updated

plagiarism the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. Recorded from the early 17th century, the word comes from Latin plagiarius ‘kidnapping’.