Copy Cats

August 21, 2006

Plagiarism has been making the news recently. One of the engineering departments in the country has discovered that more than twenty of their students had turned in theses over the years where the literature reviews were verbatim extracts from prior work. No doubt this case is clear cut, the evidence is not in dispute.

This raises the issue that there are two types of copying. One, in the version stated above, there is verbatim reproduction of the work of another person. Two, is the copying of ideas, which is a lot less verbatim and a lot more insidious. As far as I can see, the former is benign, the latter is malicious and much more damaging. Yet, the latter is more likely to be punished because it is easier to prove.

I once received a working paper from abroad that had replicated one of my studies on the U.S. bond market using exactly the same econometric specification as I had but applied it to data from a European bond market. Of course, this is not stealing my intellectual property; instead it complements and validates my work. But, the author had copied the text of my paper completely, and only changed the tables and figures to reflect numbers from the different data set. It was just that he had used my paper as a template into which he fit his analysis. I was nonplussed and took it to a senior person in my department and asked if I needed to do anything. After some discussion I let the matter be, deciding that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery; but more, there was an intellectual contribution that to my mind, constituted “fair use” of my work, which did not damage me in any way. Yet, strictly speaking, this was clearly plagiarism. The author had cited me often but not represented my text in quotes. While this is clearly a gray area, I do not think it constituted his “representing my work as his” – and to me – that is the acid test. Did the author steal my intellectual property? – I think not. Did he copy? – yes.

On the other hand, I have received papers to referee where the author has clearly taken the kernel of an idea from another paper and then made some minor tweaks to make sure that legality is preserved. Here, there is much more to feel concerned about. Intellectual property is stolen and disguised in different clothes. In the previous case, no intellectual property is stolen, only the clothes are the same. I leave you to disagree with me, but I think the provably punishable version is less damaging. Would I recommend either? Not at all – one should always do the legal thing and not commit plagiarism, no matter how harmless. But it is much more important to be ethical than legal. The unethical stealing of others’ work by dressing it up differently is pre-meditated, and often the purely illegal version tends not to be, and maybe just an unconscious mistake.

This is not to say that the copying chunks of material from the web and presenting them as one’s own work, as is the case with term papers and such like is condonable – in such cases pre-meditated misrepresentation of others’ work as one’s own is clearly taking place. Such actions are unethical and illegal. Avoid them at all costs. And also try not to make mistakes unconsciously.

This contradiction where violations of the letter of the law are strongly prosecuted and violations of the spirit of the law are often allowed to pass off without redress, is to my mind, a huge calamity. Its effects extend beyond the realm of intellectual endeavor and tend to corrupt the fabric of society more deeply. A case in point is the manner in which airport security operates. Next time you go through an airport, look carefully at how the screeners carry out their jobs. They tend to do exactly as procedure warrants, rather than use their judgment. This is because if they used their judgment and missed one procedural step, they would be in trouble, even though using their judgment is on average more likely to make our flight system much safer. Cover your rear is again an example of monitoring what is easy to do, rather than monitoring what is hard to detect, and most of us would agree that the latter is more important.

In short, when we tell our students what constitutes plagiarism, we need to explain what is wrong in spirit and ethics, not only what the letter of the law is.