Collective Responsibilities

While plagiarism is often described as a kind of theft, it might be better to think of it as a kind of deceit. It is a form of lying. The plagiarist says “Here’s how I would put it,” or “Here’s what I’ve discovered,” or “Here’s my reading of Adam Smith,” but is really using someone else’s words to say it or expressing someone else’s ideas. It’s not so much like stealing someone’s car as pointing to it and claiming it is yours in order to impress a date. The owner is often less harmed by this than your date. Similarly, in scholarship, it is your reader that is misled by plagiarism not (so much) the author that suffers a loss.

Now, people who behave unethically are, of course, not likely to face charges of unethical behavior in the most ethical manner either. So, if plagiarism is a kind of lying, then we will not expect the plagiarist to immediately come clean when confronted with the facts. Often, the plagiarist will try to complicate matters, to make it a matter of interpretation. (“I never said that was my car. I only allowed you to believe it was.”) In a word, we will expect the plagiarist to lie in order to cover up the original lie. This is pretty common in high profile plagiarism cases, and no one really thinks much of it. But it is important to keep in mind when trying to bring a case of plagiarism to light, especially from a position of less power than the plagiarist. And such, of course, is the case of the imagined PhD student that I’ve been discussing lately.

What she needs to do is to set up a situation in which she can insist on her claim of plagiarism over a significant period. We must never assume that an ethical situation can be resolved simply by pointing to the violation and demanding that it be dealt with. So her first task is to locate someone within her community that she can trust to add weight to her charges, and who is able to carry the process to a satisfactory resolution.

One strategy here is to find someone with as much academic credibility as the plagiarist, but who is not professionally involved with him. Sometimes such “sponsors” can be found in adjacent fields or even nearby sub-disciplines, but there are also cases where a PhD student in the social sciences has found support in the natural sciences to press forward. I think those who provide such support deserve our praise. While they often don’t have much to lose, they do need to invest their time and resources in holding the plagiarist to account. They need to get involved in what is likely to be an uncomfortable and embarrassing confrontation. They may even have to endure a bit of mudslinging, though the mud will, if the battle is well-chosen, be more like the proverbial water off a duck’s back.

In fact, finding a sponsor like this is what I would recommend as the primary responsibility of the PhD student. The evidence should be handed off to someone who is willing and able to press the case towards a resolution, against the predictable resistance he or she will face. The PhD student has better things to do.

An ethical research community depends on the existence of such potential sponsors. It is preferable that such people exist within every discipline (meaning that disciplines should be organized with the requisite variety of social relationships not implicate everyone directly in everyone else’s work), but it may be possible to rely only a broader academic community in which the actual disinterestedness of researchers, across widely disparate fields, makes people available that our PhD student could go to with the issue. If there is really no one to turn to, then that does not bode well for the ethical culture of the discipline in question.

It is this sort of reflection, in my opinion, that is required when a young scholar comes to a more experienced one for guidance after having discovered a case of plagiarism. If you don’t feel you can take on the case yourself, you should help find someone who can. It will not do to advise the PhD student to pretend nothing is wrong. We have a collective responsibility to hold people to account for their ethical transgressions.

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