Plagiarism Is Not a Victimless Crime
This ‘learned sin’ is rampant, threatening the support structure of science.
Opinion by Adrian Bejan
Identity theft and false science are on the march in the Internet era. Marilyn Dyrud courageously sounded the alarm about bogus journals (Last Word, Prism, March-April 2018). Sadly, the threat is much greater, and much older:
Plagiarius means kidnapper in Latin, a person who gave his name to the child he stole. Roman poet Martial coined the name when he became fed up with the stealing of his poems. In modern times, “plagiarist” means literary thief. This meaning is sharply accurate. The parent recognizes his child’s face in the crowd, and suffers. The victim of plagiarism recognizes his creation from oceans away, and suffers.
There are 10 types of plagiarism. Copying a piece of creative work is called “type 1.” This type is so rare that when one case is uncovered it becomes news. Most of the plagiarism in science is of type 3. It is the act of using a source, changing a few key words and a few lines in a figure, and publishing the idea as new. It is as old as school homework, public speaking, and publishing. The National Science Foundation, in its regulation on academic misconduct, states: “Plagiarism means the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.”
This “learned sin,” as Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University has called it, threatens the disinterested truths that serve as the support structure for science. It is rampant because electronic publishing has enhanced the speed and reach of the spreading of science. Journals and publishers have ballooned in volume and number. Compared with how science was transmitted when I was a student, today everybody publishes and nobody reads.
To cope with the deluge, journals that were once “international” are now relying on several regional editors. “Regional” sounds innocent, except when a regional editor is assigned to only one country, far away. The links among that regional editor, the regional authors, and the regional reviewers are invisible. It has become much easier to cheat, and much more difficult to police.
Inspiration and theft happen because good ideas spread naturally. Faced with this force of nature, scholarship has arrived unwittingly at a consensus: It is OK to get inspired, but you must acknowledge your source of inspiration. Cite what you read before you compose your version of it. Do this little thing, and you will be all right.
Obviously, this little thing is not taught everywhere on the globe. In his 2017 book Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han justifies plagiarism on grounds of cultural differences, arguing that what would be seen in the West as piracy is unfamiliar to the Chinese. This is no justification, because the rules of science (as we practice it) have been embraced voluntarily by the whole globe.
It is difficult to stop plagiarism when government grants support every author (and, indirectly, editor) who publishes one paper in a ranked journal. It is difficult to stop plagiarism when the plagiarism experts invited on panels are the editors, not the victims. Most editors and publishers are unwitting enablers of plagiarism: When new plagiarists cite old plagiarists in the same journal, the publisher may even benefit, due to an improvement in the journal’s impact factor and author’s output index.
Some publishers playact as enemies of plagiarism when they accuse a true author of “self-plagiarism.” The term is nonsense: One does not steal from oneself; one owns what one creates. Accusing the creative author of self-plagiarism is like accusing Picasso, Matisse, and Brancusi of thievery because they sold many pieces of art that looked like their own art from a few years back.
An international expert who investigates plagiarism was asked: What are the most common types of research misconduct, and what impact can they have? He answered: “The big three are falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism, the most common being plagiarism. In a sense it’s the least impactful in terms of perceptions from the outside; it clutters the research record, and it’s effectively an act of stealing credit.” The least impactful? What about the impact on the victim?
Editors of China’s Journal of Zhejiang University, evidently disagreeing with Han, are so fed up that they ask: “How many instances of plagiarism would be needed for someone to be blacklisted?” That’s right. Exposing plagiarists without implementing an unforgiving policy (punishment) that terminates the practice is to do nothing.
Adrian Bejan is a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University.
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