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What plagiarism is - and is not
Alan M. Perlman, PhD 1
A brief definition: plagiarism is knowingly appropriating another's original words and/or ideas and presenting them as one's own.
As a student, scholar, and professional writer, I have long been familiar with the standards governing academic honesty and plagiarism.
The fundamental questions are:
(i) Are the similarities between two texts or documents too numerous and/or precise to have occurred by chance? (But see [a] below.)
(ii) To what extent is the material in the public domain, as common knowledge or as common language usage? There are so many works on every subject that we would expect to find many of the same concepts, the same statements, perhaps even the same sentences in different works. There are probably not more than a dozen basic literary plots. 2
Similarly, certain conditions can be taken for granted as mise en scene, the commonly expected aspects of background, situation, historical era, theme, and genre.
One client claimed that Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code) plagiarized his work. There were similarities, but just about any book on the discoveries of the mysteries of the ancient Church will involve Rome, the Vatican, a cavern or underground chamber, and much else that was mise en scene or to be expected in a novel of this type.
The same rationale applies to non-fiction. The reader is expected to have certain background information about the world and the topic at hand - otherwise, every statement would require attribution.
The question of whether something is in the public domain has become vastly more complex in the Information Age. New ideas and phrases spread so rapidly that it's hard to tell where they originally came from.
When a charge of plagiarism is leveled, the data may fail to meet the "gold standard" stated above, usually for the following reasons:
(a) The material can be shown to be in the public domain, thus accessible from sources other than the ones from which material was allegedly plagiarized. This criterion is often overlooked by accusers. If the replicated words and/or ideas can be shown to be available from only one other source, a charge of plagiarism is justified. If the repeated material can be found in many other places, the writer may have thought the material was in the public domain.
In legal and academic writing, proper attribution is essential. But scholars have written the same things so many times that the wording, refined over many years, may be regarded as the optimal way to express the ideas in question.
In legal writing, authors tend not to stray far from established wording, especially if it has precedential value.
Similarly, expression of the provisions of a particular law, regulation, or court decision may, over time, become so fixed as to approach boilerplate. Attribution, except in the most general terms, can be difficult, impractical, or impossible.
(b) The two items were independently created. Independent creation is not uncommon, and both parties may be sincere in their claims to originality.
(c) The plagiarism charge is part of a larger controversy and is brought with malice and little forethought.
(e) Failure to attribute properly may be taken as plagiarism instead of carelessness. Here the accuser presumes to know the intent of the writer.
The overzealous enforcement of formatting and stylebook requirements obscures the essence of the plagiarism issue: was the material sufficiently original and appropriated and passed off as original to the writer? A handful of attribution errors is a weak justification for a charge of plagiarism, especially if much of the material is mise en scene or genre-specific. However, a large number of failures to attribute, especially if the words are the same, may lead to the opposite conclusion.
Plagiarism: hardly anybody - even law professors - really understands what it is or how the Information Age has affected the definition of it. Old-school plagiarism - one-on-one, direct appropriation of another's originality - still goes on, perhaps in the sciences, where originality is at a premium. Maybe in the arts, too: "Good artists copy; great artists steal" (attributed to many people).
But far more often than not, the charge is weak, unsupported, and part of a larger controversy. The recent flap over supposed speech plagiarism by Melania Trump - seriously? She lifted some very trite lines that Michelle Obama admitted SHE had received from someone else. But the vultures pounced, highlighting the similarities in yellow. On the other hand, why did Joe Biden repeat verbatim so much of a British politician's speech? What was he thinking?
As long as there is originality, there will be plagiarism. As Tom Lehrer sang in his classic song on the subject ("Lobachevsky" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXlfXirQF3A), "Don't forget why God made your eyes - plagiarize!"
1© 2014. All rights reserved. Not for distribution.
2 Parody, in my opinion, does not violate copyright law, because while its content may be similar to the original, its intent is different. Both content and intent are key components of any communicative act.