"The writer I hired was a plagiarist!"

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For those of us in the unpleasant position of policing student essays for plagiarism, there's a familiar odor wafting off of the unfolding scandal involving Scott McGinnis, a former congressman and current candidate for governor in Colorado ("McInnis’ water writings mirror works published years ago by Justice Hobbs", Denver Post 7/12/2010):

Portions of essays on water submitted for publication by gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis are identical or nearly identical to work published years earlier by now-State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs. […]

In a memo accompanying the work when it was turned in to the Hasan Foundation for publication, McInnis wrote that it was all original work and in its final form.

McInnis refused to comment for this story. His campaign’s spokesman, Sean Duffy, acknowledged the similarities between the work of Hobbs and McInnis, and blamed a researcher who worked with McInnis on the articles.

Rolly Fischer, an engineer who worked at the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Duffy said, was the one who handled the portions that used Hobbs’ work without attribution.

“It should’ve been attributed properly and it was not,” Duffy said. “(McInnis) relied on the research and expertise” of Fischer.

Fischer did not immediately return a message for comment. His name appears nowhere on the work McInnis submitted as his own for publication by the Hasan Foundation.

The facts of this case are not clear yet — but in any event, my point is not to excoriate Mr. McInnis.  What interests me here is yet another  example of the two incompatible ethical yardsticks that our culture applies to questions of authorship.

For students and their teachers, the key question about a text is who wrote it. When students submit essays (or problem-set answers, or anything else) as their own work, the crucial thing is that the work is really and truly their own. If they hired someone else to write it for them, that's even worse than if they copied it from some previously-written document.

For politicians, business leaders, and other celebrities, the key question about a text is who owns it. When they submit as their own work a book, a speech, a column, or whatever, the only requirement is that they haven't violated someone else's property rights by illegitimate copying. Hiring someone to write things for them is not only OK, it's the normal practice.

So in the case of Scott McInnis, the question is not whether he hired Rolly Fisher to write some or all of his essays for him. Everyone apparently agrees that McInnis hired Fisher to write for him, and everyone accepts that this is perfectly in order. The scandal turns on the question of whether Fisher plagiarized some of his work-for-hire from previous publications by Gregory Hobbs.

As I observed a few years ago ("Unwritten rules and uncreated consciences", 5/4/2006), this striking distinction between plagiarism-by-students and plagiarism-by-grown-ups looks superficially like hypocrisy. But whatever its moral standing, the situation is certainly very confusing to students. In my opinion, it would be helpful if we had a special term for academic plagiarism, to emphasize the point that it has nothing whatever to do with the mis-step that Scott McInnis may or may not be in trouble for.

I've participated in several University-wide attempts of different kinds to inform incoming students about what plagiarism is and why they should avoid it. None of these forums have explained why one of the things that we (correctly) punish students for, namely hiring other people to do their work for them, is normal in the world of business and politics — and common among academic administrators as well.

[One other curious aspect of our culture's norms in this area: social reaction seems to be based on a notion of copyright that never expires. Thus if Scott McInnis's ghostwriter had plagiarized some essays that were published in 1920, and thus are free of intellectual-property restrictions in the U.S., I suspect that the public would still view McInnis as having transgressed.

And on reflection, I guess that it's a bit more complicated. If X publishes a work of political philosophy, and politician Y then pays X for the right to re-issue the same text over Y's name instead, this would be viewed as culpable or at least weird. In contrast, if Y simply pays X to ghostwrite the same text, to be published as Y's work, this would be normal. So there is at least a shallow pretense of originality here, and perhaps therefore an odor of hypocrisy after all.]

[More on the McInnis story here — though as I said earlier, this is only a representative example.]


  1. Henning Makholm said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    It's strange how the business of idea ownership has come to apply to politics.

    I mean, if you're really passionate about some political vision, and happen to develop a particular argument, or turn of phrase that turns out to be effective in convincing others to take up your opinion, wouldn't you want as many people as possible to repeat that argument to each other, no matter whether they credit you or not? Building support for the political action you want to happen is the primary matter, right?

    But it seems like voters (or perhaps just pundits?) feel that they ought to reward individual politicians for original thought. If one candidate brings forth his own original ideas and his opponent just parrots what somebody else has already said better, then I somehow ought to vote for the "original" one, not matter how repugnant the ideas themselves might be to me, or how just and worthy the ones the "plagiarist" champions is. What's happening here?

    There are probably two possible sources. One is, of course, the influence of academia, where original thought (rightly) is the product that should be rewarded.

    Another source is the patent system and the strong mythology of making it big by having one right idea at the right moment it has fostered. There seems to be a widespread conception that having the Right Idea is the ultimate in human achievement, or at least is the sort of thing that could morally justify tabloid-style wealth and riches (since, as many of us know, hard work alone doesn't seem to be the key). This again leads to the feeling that it is morally wrong to uses somebody else's idea without somehow paying them (whether that means royalties, explicit credit or whatever).

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    As I observed a few years ago ("Unwritten rules and uncreated consciences", 5/4/2006), this striking distinction between plagiarism-by-students and plagiarism-by-grown-ups looks superficially like hypocrisy. But whatever its moral standing, the situation is certainly very confusing to students. In my opinion, it would be helpful if we had a special term for academic plagiarism, to emphasize the point that it has nothing whatever to do with the mis-step that Scott McInnis may or may not be in trouble for.

    It's important to note that the "academic plagiarism" concept covers journalism too, at least for reporters, so it's not just a question of students vs grown-ups. I'm not sure if there's been a case where a columnist's researcher was blamed for plagiarism, but I could just about imagine the double standard applying there.

    [(myl) I don't think this is correct. If it turned out to be true that a reporter hired a ghostwriter, would that be viewed as a transgression? Certainly reporters often have help from researchers, so I doubt it. I think this doesn't come up all that much because most reporters don't get paid enough, or have enough other obligations, for large-scale hiring of ghostwriters to make sense. (Though I don't know enough about the culture of journalism to be very confident about any of this.)

    I do know that syndicated columns are sometimes (maybe often?) ghostwritten. In the 2006 post that I linked to, I discuss an anonymized case of a popular syndicated column, "written" for many years by the president of a major research university, which in fact was completely the work of others. I know this because a person very well known to me earned extra money by ghostwriting this column for a couple of years, including coming up with the ideas, doing the research, and writing the copy. The "author" signed off on the results, at least nominally, but never changed anything.]

  3. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    Also, apparently McInnis was paid $300k to write these articles (nice work if you can get it). I'm pretty sure the Hasan Foundation wouldn't be happy to know he turned around and hired someone else to write them, presumably for a lot less.

    [(myl) Exactly this same situation applies in many if not most cases of books "written" by celebrities, including politicians. Sometimes the ghostwriter gets "with X" credit, but sometimes not. And no one suggests repayment of royalties in such cases.

    In this particular instance, it seems that you're right:

    In a phone interview Monday night, Dr. Malik Hasan said he hired McInnis as a fellow because of his work on the House Natural Resources Committee and his expertise on water issues.

    He said he expected it would be a full- or substantial-time job because the project included educating the public on Colorado water uses and how the state could be more diligent in protecting its rivers.

    But soon after he started his fellowship, McInnis took a job at Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), leaving little time for the project, Hasan said.

    Speaking only for himself and not for the foundation board, of which he is a member, Hasan said he was "deeply disappointed by the quantity and quality of McInnis' work.

    "I am doubly disappointed since learning of the plagiarism," he said. "I'm going to suggest (McInnis) return a substantial amount of the money to the foundation."

    But often, the point is either to make money or to gain political influence, and as long as these things happen, the publisher (or other ultimately responsible party) typically has no reason to care.]

  4. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    Originality is of course overrated.
    I miss the days when everyone copied everyone else (or at least everyone copied Boccaccio), and if they did happen to have an original idea they would quickly ascribe it to Aristotle or to some old book they had found (though usually not Boccaccio).

    © rhb 1390AD All rights reserved in perpetuity etc. etc.

    [(myl) Or Aristophanes and Menander.]

  5. a soulless automaton said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Perhaps the distinction is partly in whether the writing is regarded (implicitly) as an end in itself, or as a part of a whole or a means to something else.

    A political speech or self-aggrandizing work of "non-fiction" laying out political ideas are easily seen as being a means to promote the politician's career. Writing in a business context is often a means to communicate information between two parties or, again, to promote someone's career.

    It's the difference between a "band" with no musical skill lip-syncing or otherwise faking performances (regarded with mild scorn, even if one likes the music) and a record label selling other people's music. One claims to be an artist, the other is providing a product.

    Tongue-in-cheek conclusion: Whenever academic plagiarism is considered acceptable, it means someone is trying to sell you something.

  6. Matthew Scouten said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    I think the common denominator is the difference between Ideological Authorship (i.e: developing the ideas to be expressed) and Word Smithing (i.e: the art of arranging words and sentences in a pleasing, logical, and grammatical fashion). What is important in both cases is Ideological Authorship.

    The student may get Word Smithing help from the writing center, and that is acceptable or even encouraged. But if the student is Word Smithing what some one else told him to write, that is a problem.

    Likewise, a politician or celebrity may hire a Word Smith to help express their ideas, and we accept the result as belonging to Ideological Author.

  7. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    Mark, to answer your points:

    " I don't think this is correct. If it turned out to be true that a reporter hired a ghostwriter, would that be viewed as a transgression?"

    It certainly would be if their employer/editor wasn't informed, as seems to be the case here, and this is the type of "ghostwriting" I'm talking about. As you say, ghost writing is fairly common for columnists, but (as far as I know) much rarer for reporters, unless you count extensive subbing as ghostwriting. There's some well known (within the industry) cases in sports journalism, but they tend to be people who are more columnist than reporter.

    "Exactly this same situation applies in many if not most cases of books "written" by celebrities, including politicians. Sometimes the ghostwriter gets "with X" credit, but sometimes not. And no one suggests repayment of royalties in such cases."

    Indeed, but again the ghostwriting is done with the knowledge and consent of the commissioning party. Indeed, the ghostwriters are often chosen by the publishers.

    "But often, the point is either to make money or to gain political influence, and as long as these things happen, the publisher (or other ultimately responsible party) typically has no reason to care"

    And this is why it's different for reporting. Obviously the publisher's motivation is ultimately to make money and/or influence politics, but another very strong motivation when it comes to news is maintaining the credibility of the institution's reporting. Unacknowledged ghostwriting undermines credibility. Whereas editorial columns aren't about credibility – they're about entertainment, provocation, influence and various other things.

    [(myl) This all rings true. One quibble — it seems to me that topical columns are often meant to be a credible source of information, in particular when they deal with subjects like medicine, science, technology, cooking, nutrition, and so on. And even political columns risk losing credibility if they get the reputation for inventing facts. (Or so you'd think — I admit that the evidence is at best equivocal…)]

  8. Rick Robinson said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    @ Henning: Bingo on 'ideas' and the analogy to patents.

    To the public, I would guess, the core value is the 'idea' expressed in some piece of writing, with the actual writing seen as a sort of polishing-up process. The mental image is that a ghostwriter spends hours interviewing a pol or celebrity, then 'wordsmiths' the resulting nuggets of wisdom into final form. Episodes like this one violate that implied norm. Obviously the researcher didn't 'work with' McGinnis, and McGinnis contributed no nuggets to the end result (other than a paycheck).

    An irony is that to professional writers 'ideas' are a dime a dozen; all the real value, the talent and work, is in the execution. Plagiarism scandals like this are in part a collision of these differing world views, because of course most of the public commentary is written by writers.

  9. Toby said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    @Matthew Scouten: I think you have this spot on. I worked for three years as a writer for a (European) politician and I now work in academia. To my mind, there was nothing morally dubious about my political employer asking me to draft an article to be published in his name; sometimes he would go through the draft and make changes, but other times not.

    But what I was paid to provide was not political or ideological originality for him to pass off as his own, but writing skills so that he could communicate his ideas effectively (and, of course, time to craft the language which he simply didn't have). That's the exact opposite of the academic plagiarism case, where it's the ideas which are stolen without attribution and (sometimes) paraphrased.

    Employing someone behind the scenes to write prose for you is not immoral. Employing someone to come up with ideas which you can pass off as your own clearly is.

  10. Dan K said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    I'm not sure why it should be so hard to explain the difference to (reasonably bright) students. Professors are asked to attest to a student's knowledge and abilities, not to a student's ability to produce the best text they can manage by whatever means. Politicians are expected (in principle, not in reality) to produce texts that represent their own views, which is reasonably consistent with having documents produced by staffers. In either case, it seems like the standard, more or less, is that it's okay as long as you're not misleading anyone consequentially.

    I'm sure there's a lot of gray area where it's hard to work out why people have certain intuitions about the ethics of various kinds of authorship shenanigans. But surely the most important differences between what's ethical for students vs. politicians should be easily appreciated by typical college students.

    [(myl) I don't think that it's especially hard to explain these ideas to students (though the diverse ethical norms in different cultural settings are a bit complicated). My main point is that (in my experience) we don't even try to explain all this to them, instead just telling them what plagiarism is (in the academic context), why it's bad (in the academic context), how it will be detected and punished (in the academic context). But most of them know what things are like in other settings, and many of them conclude that we're being anal or alarmist or otherwise ignorable.

    As an analogy, they interpret strictures about plagiarism in somewhat the same way as they interpret strictures about drinking.]

  11. Tony said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    "And on reflection, I guess that it's a bit more complicated. If X publishes a work of political philosophy, and politician Y then pays X for the right to re-issue the same text over Y's name instead, this would be viewed as culpable or at least weird. In contrast, if Y simply pays X to ghostwrite the same text, to be published as Y's work, this would be normal."

    Having ghostwritten my share of letters, statements and articles (but not books), I think that, when person X is writing in person Y's name, there is at least the pretense that person X is writing from some understanding of person Y's views. And, of course, person Y has a say in the text (and believe me, person Y is generally not shy about changing that text).

    -Person X

  12. Charles said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    I don't see any real connection between copyright – which is almost exclusively economic in nature – and plagiarism, which is not. Lawyers even have a fancy phrase for those non-economic aspects of copyright-like protection which, in the US at least, are not protected by the Copyright Act: "moral rights." You have a moral right to have your work attributed to you, even if it's out of copyright, but this right isn't enforceable in US courts. (European courts tend to be more solicitious of moral rights, from what I understand).

    That does bring up an interesting question. If I copy, say Billy Budd, word for word, and publish it with my name as author, I suspect US courts wouldn't do anything about it. The only plausible claim I could imagine would be a false advertising claim.

  13. Simon Hawkins said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    If nothing else, these debates remind us of the complexities of speech roles. Goffman, in writing about footing, described three distinct roles in language production. The animator (the person who actually delivers the material), the author (the person who scripts it), and the animator (the person whose position the words describe). Other's expand on this, such that Stephen Levinson ("Putting Linguistics on a Proper Footing") proposes the categories of: author, 'ghostee,' spokesman, relayer, deviser, sponsor, and 'ghostor." The issue turns on what contexts demand which of these roles to be joined and why. Students are being evaluated on the quality of their written work, which makes plagiarism about something more than simple academic honesty. If the words are not written by the nominal author, it corrupts the educational process. If material by my favorite columnist turns out to have been ghosted, I may be a bit disappointed, but it doesn't undermine the process to nearly the same extent. Of course, stealing someone else's words without their knowledge or consent raises different issues altogether.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    When students submit essays (or problem-set answers, or anything else) as their own work, the crucial thing is that the work is really and truly their own. If they hired someone else to write it for them, that's even worse than if they copied it from some previously-written document.

    To amplify what Matthew Scouten said, this isn't always true. When I was an undergrad and grad student in physics, it was understood that we students would work together on problem sets. I think math works that way too. Now I explicitly tell my students to work together or with the college's tutors or with me on their homework. I also advise them how to learn the most from this process—not by copying.

    [(myl) Sure — courses in many disciplines allow or require group work. I certainly do, in most of the courses that I teach — with the proviso that the submitted work is explicit about who played what role in creating it. But this is different from (say) a wealthy student hiring a poor one to do all his or her assignments. (And this does happen, believe me.)]

    This summer I'm working for another college as a math and chemistry tutor, making sure students' homework is correct, among other things. The college is paying me for this. I don't suggest that students copy the worked-out solutions out of the solution manuals, but some do, and no one seems to object. And there's nothing wrong with the students' hiring private tutors either, as person has mentioned that she's done.

    In both politics and academia, I don't think the issue is ownership of ideas, whether like copyright (pace MYL) or patents (pace Henning Makholm). I see no sense that the originator has any control over how the idea is used or that the main problem with plagiarism is harm to the originator, since as MYL says it's still plagiarism if the originator is long dead. Instead the issue is honesty. The writer of an essay (but not a politician making a speech) explicitly or implicitly represents the unattributed parts as original and is guilty of dishonesty if they're not. In McInnis's case, this representation was apparently explicit, and he should have credited both Fischer and Hobbs.

    And I don't think we American voters place much value on a politician's originality. At best it's a pleasant addition to a politician's image. But we expect politicians to get their ideas from their staffs and academics. Politicians often say "we", seemingly about themselves, which I take as a commendably candid way of crediting their staffs.

    So political writing has this similarity to copyright: the employer "owns" employees' work. But I think the fact that the employer (the politician) directed the work has as much to do with it as the flow of money. This is much like what Tony said.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    @Charles: What if you publish Don Quixote with Pierre Menard's name as author?

    (But I imagine you're right.)

  16. George Amis said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd.
    What oft was though, but ne'er so well express'd.
    — Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

  17. anchorageite said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    I think of plagiarism as an ethical violation and copyright as a legal one. They often overlap, although their consequences usually do not.

    McInnis's reproduction of Hobbs's words, whether under his own name or not, was a violation of the author's copyright. That is not what the controversy will be about, however. His use of Hobbs's words is also a violation of whatever ethical rules apply to politicians or pundits, just as a student's plagiarism would be a violation of the ethical rules that apply in the academy.

    Although the economic value of the work would affect the likelihood of a copyright suit, I don't see that as the key distinction. And although the ethical rules of the different professions might differ (significantly? I'm not so sure), the distinction between politician and undergrad also does not seem to be the key.

    I agree with Mark that the problem is not the hiring of the ghostwriter — "everyone accepts that this is perfectly in order," including, most importantly the ghostwriter himself, who voluntarily handed over the copyright to his work. If only it had really been his work…

  18. Mark P said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that in US copyright, an idea can't be copyrighted, but the expression of it can.

    When I was in graduate school, students taking atmospheric chemistry courses regularly cooperated, even to the extent that we used a set of homeworks that had been handed down from class to class. This was not only tolerated, but expected. I think the main reason was that the homework sets were seen as a learning tool not unlike a textbook, and since the assignments were typically too long for mortals to complete in the alloted time, we were expected to make use of whatever resources we had. At the end, we were expected to have learned something from the process of distilling those resources into our own homework sets. The test of that expectation came at exam time, after which I was left to ponder the real difference between B++ and A– (one grade point, of course).

  19. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    Further to the distinction between use of ghost writers in academic work and the use of them in commercial work, the phrase at play might be "work for hire." In the non-academic venue, hiring others with talents (such as photography, writing, design, and even manufacture) is the way most work is done by all but jacks-of-all-trades. As a rule, employers anticipate that employees or those with commissions will relinquish their work products to the employer. Employers can then do what they will with the products, including claim them as their own. Politicians (in this case) are no different. Academic work products—the things produced by students, to be specific—are illegitimate if they are "works for hire" because students are expected to create their own works. McInnis or Fischer may be outlaws not because they used another's works, but that the work is "work for free"! Lack of attribution is not the issue. One of them has used or condoned theft (absent identification of which of the 100 typing monkeys typed the text).

    [(myl) As I said, outside the academy, the central (though not the only) question seems to be one of property.]

  20. nonpoptheorist said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    Timely subject. I'm currently reading: Plagiarism, The Internet and Student Learning – Improving Academic Integrity, by Wendy Sutherland-Smith, Routledge, 2008. I've only got 50 pages into it so far so my mind isn't yet fully formed here yet. It starts off with discussions amongst educators and the wide range of responses to student plagiarism, then moves onto the history of plagiarism.

    I'm fairly sure I've had my own work as a student plagiarized, in the form of patchwriting. It made me quite angry and I struggled to speak when reporting it, dismayed when not prosecuted to my satisfaction. I turn to a diagram in this book and see how one side of it covers emotion of those finding plagiarism. Examples of different types of plagiarism, intentional and unintentional are fairly clearly laid out and it has made me sit back and keep reading.

    I'm hoping I'm starting to see things from all angles now. The comments above are obviously coming from the full spectrum and easier to understand. The anger, fury, exasperation, dismay and other assorted responses to finding plagiarism are difficult to get over. Learning about them and how to look at this logically is a form of self protection, to avoid stressing yourself out where not wholly necessary in case you become despondent.

    "This striking distinction between plagiarism-by-students and plagiarism-by-grown-ups looks superficially like hypocrisy." Ouch! Why do I feel some discomfort reading that being a grown-up who just happens to be a student?

  21. blahedo said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    @Ginger Yellow suggests a relationship between plagiarism-for-students and the rules that apply in journalism, but I'm really skeptical. In my experience, journalists feel free to make things up, including quotes from interviews, as long as they suspect they are more-or-less what you would have said if you'd been as eloquent as they think they are. (PR flacks are a thousand times worse, of course, but I've seen this happen with "real" journalists, too.) Call them on it, and they defend the practice, although sometimes they "graciously" offer to "fix" the quote or whatever. The PR side of this bleeds through even more into journalism because journalists lift so much, including "direct" quotes, from the press releases.

    I like the suggestion of having different names for all the violations, because it is very hard to explain to students what is and isn't acceptable in the classroom when their work-study job over in PR or their internship over at the paper is feeding them a completely different standard on acceptable quotation and paraphrase.

    [(myl) Or an even more completely different standard about work for hire — in the case that I cited, a graduate student was earning pocket money by writing her university president's columns for him; if she'd used the money to hire someone else to write one of her term papers, she could have been kicked out of the program for that egregious violation of academic integrity.

    I'm not suggesting that there was anything illegitimate in the president's behavior — though I imagine that it might have been embarrassing for him if the facts had come out — but the reasons for the distinction need to be discussed.]

  22. D.O. said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    Where does it leave us in the discussion of a politicos personality or governing style by means of counting personal pronouns, passive constructions etc. etc. in the speeches? We are nearing some convergence of themes here on LL.

  23. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    One should also bear in mind that sometimes students do the reverse; they apply academic standards in cases where they are not appropriate. In an academic context, all quoted material must be fully cited. In origin, I think, the point of this was not to prevent plagiarism, but in a way the opposite; to prevent people making stuff up and pretending to have a source for it. But once this rule is in place, one is effectively claiming that any material not fully cited is one's own; hence quotation without full citation is plagiarism.

    However, you sometimes find people trying apply this in a literary context, where it really doesn't work. In literature there is a well-established practice of allusion, by which one can incorporate famous quotations, or even more obscure quotations, provided the context makes it clear that you are writing allusively. But those who have learnt the concept of 'plagiarism' from student orientation often get the sense that this is plagiarism, and that to incorporate lines like 'All humans by nature desire to know', or 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet', or 'Someone is wrong on the internet' without full citation is clearly malpractice.

  24. Jethro said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 12:01 am

    I wonder how this issue works for other creative endeavours than writing. The former Prime Minister of New Zealand was roundly criticised for submitting a painting for a charity auction with her signature on it, even though she hadn't wielded the paintbrush to create it. How is this different to her delivering a speech or putting her name to a newspaper column even though she hadn't wielded the pen to write it?

  25. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 12:24 am

    "The anger, fury, exasperation, dismay and other assorted responses to finding plagiarism…"

    About eight years ago I read a book on memory by one of the field's leading researchers. It strongly altered my thinking on plagiarism because not only is it possible for people to unknowingly remember entire passages of text, almost or exactly word-for-word, it's not even a freakish occurrence and is rather more common than you'd suppose. There are a number of documented cases where most observers are willing to agree that the plagiarism was unintentional, one of the most famous is a book written by Hellen Keller.

    However, because intuition wrongly suggests that such word-for-word unintentional recollections are extremely unlikely, and because of the strong reactions to plagiarism as exemplified by the quote above from nonpoptheorist, accused perpetrators are assumed guilty until proven innocent…and because of the false intuition, they are never proven innocent.

    I'm not sure what exactly can be done about this because, certainly, there is a significant amount of intentional plagiarism committed by students and others. But it does bother me that approximately no one thinks to critically consider their intuition on the matter and, worse, writers on the subject and investigators never think to consult memory researchers when an accused person claims the plagiarism was unintentional.

  26. J. Goard said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 3:06 am

    Much of this conversation is rather bizarre. To me these differences don't speak to different ethical principles in academia, but simply to the very obvious fact that the typical student wants a diploma, which is a kind of certification of ability.

    Similarly, if you want a class A license, you can't hire someone to drive the truck for you during the test (or just have your friend lend you his). This is because what society cares about is whether the person behind the wheel can control the vehicle properly, and the facts of reality are such that transferring a little plastic card does nothing to transfer such an ability.

    Not only is formal credentialing widespread in the property-based world, but informal demonstration of ability is as old as the hills. "Looking for temporary work as a farm hand? Well, let's see how much you can lift." "Okay, I'll just ask my friend here to demonstrate how much I can lift." Huh?

    The concept of academic plagiarism is simply what you get when the ability being certified includes expressing one's ideas about a subject in writing. The same old ethical standard being: you can't get a document telling all of society that you can do something when you haven't demonstrated that you can do it.

    When the writing is a product, rather than part of a certification process, things are just as obviously different as in my examples above. If my job is only to get the onions to you, I can hire somebody else to drive a truck or carry them in a sack. Whence the confusion?

    [(myl) This is a clear explanation of (some of) the reasons for the cultural differences. It's just this kind of explanation and discussion that students don't now get, at least in my experience.]

  27. Jenny said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    In support of @Keith Ellis, as a student many years ago while writing course essays would take notes from the books or papers I was using as (referenced) sources, purposely paraphrasing to prevent plagiarism. On several occasions after writing the essay then going back to check something in the original I was embarassed to discover that in reworking my notes I had gone back to the wording of the original text.

  28. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 5:53 am

    Blahedo: I'm not trying to defend journalistic ethics in general. I'm just saying that plagiarism is a big no-no for reporters. I say this from experience, having had a plagiarised paragraph added to my copy by a sub.

  29. Matthew Kehrt said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    @J Goard I actually think you are exactly wrong. I don't think the ethical standards in the classroom have to do with getting a certification, but rather that they are filtering down from academia. Specifically, it seems to me that professors collectively set ethical standards for their students based on those that prevail in the academic world, where one's ideas and one's words are intertwined enough that getting the attribution of the words right matters. It is the ethical standards placed on the professor in their own work that sets the ethical standards for students, rather than any notion of what makes sense for the student.

    Of course, I don't think that these ethical standards for students are bad, or the wrong standards, just that I don't think you are right about how they evolved historically.

  30. Terry Collmann said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    Blahedo: In my experience, journalists feel free to make things up, including quotes from interviews, as long as they suspect they are more-or-less what you would have said if you'd been as eloquent as they think they are.

    In my experience as a journalist, doing that would get you sacked. No publication I've worked for would countenance its reporters simply making it up.

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    There are different standards within the academy, because professors, unlike students, are allowed to have "research assistants" play some role in the generation of their scholarly work product. My sense is that the norms for just how large a role the research assistant may play (or, looked at the other way, just how small a role the professor may play) in the drafting before it would be deemed unacceptably misleading to list the professor as the sole "author" of the resulting book or journal article may be somewhat fuzzy and underdeveloped. I think in the sciences as opposed to humanities there may be more of a culture of listing students as co-authors (because there's more of a scholarly culture of co-authorship — sometimes quite long lists — in general). But even then there may be an issue of just what minimum contribution the most famous / senior "co-author" listed must have made to the work before the claim of co-authorship should be deemed within the bounds of scholarly honesty.

    But maybe the academics with the practical ability to behave abusively in these regards are generally likely to be the prominent, well-funded, and already-tenured, and the point at which the contents of a candidate's tenure file are reviewed is the last point where the actual authorship (by the sort of standards applied to student work) of the contents ought to matter?

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    It's perhaps worth noting that the variable conventions about attribution in different spheres of endeavor do create some complications for copyright law purposes, in the brave new world (post 1976 in the US) where copyright term is for most purposes measured as X years after the death of the "author" rather than Y years after first publication of the work. Correctly identifying the author (or correctly identifying the work as a work-for-hire subject to its own rules for copyright term) thus has consequences for when the work will pass into the public domain. So for example, had the current regime been in effect in the U.S. back then, the copyright terms for the three sets "books written by John F. Kennedy," "books written by Theodore Sorensen," and "works-for-hire first published in 1956" would expire at three very different points in time, making it important to know which box to put Profiles in Courage in.

    The decision of John Lennon and Paul McCartney to consistently claim co-authorship (prior to the actual breakup of the Beatles) of songs now known actually to have been written solely by one or the other would have similar unfortunate effects in terms of copyright term. In both cases, the reasons actual authorship was obscured should not necessarily be considered unethical in the relevant cultural context, and would have been unlikely to have been motivated by a desire to game the copyright system (I think the system we have in the US now was already in place in UK copyright law during the Lennon-McCartney era, although I haven't gone back to double-check that). But it's an illustration of why it may have been a suboptimal idea to key legal consequences off a notion as variable and context-dependent as the attribution of authorship.

  33. Matthew Kehrt said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    I didn't realize that attribution of research assistants varied in different fields. I am in a computer science PhD program with a research assistantship. Were someone (say, my advisor) to publish work I had done without attributing it to me, I would be furious, and this would definitely be an ethics violation.

    Moreover, if I weren't involved in the technical work but were involved in writing the text of the paper, I would expect to be named an author as well.

    As regards to the distinction between attribution and authorship for copyright purposes, this comes up when publishing papers in computer science. In certain publication venues, submitting authors are required, contingent on acceptance, to transfer the copyright of the paper to the Association for Computing Machinery, the major academic society for computer science. However, it is not necessarily true that everyone named on the paper actually holds the copyright, and much more rarely (and unethically!), vice versa. I've never heard of any sort of copyright dispute because of this, but the ACM and generally most computer scientists are pretty casual about it; the authors get to keep some rights, too.

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