The Plagiarism Witch Hunt Hall of Shame

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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I started off researching the subject of plagiarism thinking that sensitivity on the issue was getting a little bit out of hand. What I found when I viewed actual guidelines and articles on the subject was just plain appalling. Academia has simply gone crazy on this subject; not figuratively crazy, but certifiably, clinically, sociopathically insane. I'm talking delusional, loss of contact with reality insanity. Since reason doesn't seem to work on the extremists on this subject, maybe exposure of their extremism might.

I anticipate a variety of responses from critics of my position:

So if you're thinking of writing along any of those lines, don't bother.

Most Pedantic Definition

From a page by the University of Phoenix, 2002 called Avoiding Plagiarism: Citation,, accessed August 1, 2005.

Example of plagiarism:
Carl Sagan (1979) describes science as a means of critically examining the world around us in which both sensory perceptions and even common sense may deceive us. As he states in Broca's Brain, "Our intuition is by no means an infallible guide." The scientist must question his own preconceptions to discover truth through actual and repeated experimentation.

What's wrong? Page number citiation (sic) is missing.

Yes you read that correctly. They said that failing to include a page reference, even if you cite the source, is plagiarism. What we have here is a total collapse of critical reasoning.

Snottiest Attitude

Try this piece by Charlie Peverett in the HERO Archives (Higher Education & Research Opportunities in the United Kingdom) (

WELL, LET'S BEGIN with an amnesty: hands up anyone who's never been tempted to cut a few corners when faced with an imminent essay deadline. Can't remember where that quote came from? Haven't got time to check the reference details? Accidentally lifted an entire thesis from someone else's website? Ah well, change the title, keep your fingers crossed and perhaps no one will notice.

Snotty, arrogant, supercilious and unprofessional are just a few of the words that come to mind on reading this piece. Also grossly unethical, since the author he's bashing doesn't say anything remotely like this. What Peter Levin, author of Beat the Witch-hunt! Peter Levins' Guide to Avoiding and Rebutting Accusations of Plagiarism, for Conscientious Students ( actually says is that definitions of plagiarism have spiraled out of control and poisoned the climate of university classrooms. To extrapolate from that position (whose validity need only be checked by looking at the example above) to imply the author advocates lifting entire works without acknowledgement, is just plain libelous.

Most Scattergun Definition of Plagiarism

Hands down, it's Brian Martin, (1994) in Plagiarism: a misplaced emphasis, Journal of Information Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1994, pp. 36-47. (on line at accessed 29 July 2005)

The most obvious and provable plagiarism occurs when someone copies phrases or passages out of a published work without using quotation marks, without acknowledging the source, or both. This can be called word-for-word plagiarism. When some of the words are changed, but not enough, the result can be called paraphrasing plagiarism. This is considered more serious when the original source is not cited. A more subtle plagiarism occurs when a person gives references to original sources, and perhaps quotes them, but never looks them up, having obtained both from a secondary source -- which is not cited (Bensman, 1988:456-457). This can be called plagiarism of secondary sources. Often it can be detected through minor errors in punctuation or citation which are copied from the secondary source. More elusive yet is the use of structure of the argument in a source without due acknowledgment of the source. This includes cases in which the plagiarizer does look up the primary sources but does not acknowledge a systematic dependence on the citations in the secondary source. This can be called plagiarism of the form of a source. More general than this is plagiarism of ideas, in which an original thought from another is used but without any dependence on the words or form of the source. Finally there is the blunt case of putting one's name to someone else's work, which might be called plagiarism of authorship.

It's reassuring that Martin adds that last category. Otherwise we might wonder if he still remembered the original reason people objected to plagiarism. It's amazing that in this age of computerized writing he can't cut and paste that thought to the start of the paragraph where it logically belongs, but he just leaves it dangling as an afterthought. He seems to have been so busy devising categories of plagiarism that he couldn't be bothered with the logical flow of his argument. But he's not done yet:

In a number of social circumstances, plagiarism is such a pervasive and accepted practice that it is seldom considered worthy of concern or mention. ...Ghostwriting is commonplace in the popular press (Posner, 1988). [Does anyone really need to cite a source for this?] ... Ghostwriting is a type of plagiarism of authorship: a failure to appropriately acknowledge contributions [The check is apparently not sufficient acknowledgement]. ...In scientific research, the phenomenon of "honorary authorship" is commonplace. ...For some academic textbooks, the official authors are chosen for their market value, but do relatively little work. The actual writers of such "managed texts" may receive little or no credit [apart from a check?] ...This is not to mention all the books -- fiction and nonfiction -- that are virtually rewritten by in-house editors before reaching the public. Another type of ghostwriting is political speechwriting. ...The same situation applies to big-name comedians, few of whom write the bulk of their routines [and don't pay their writers?]. Another and even more common misrepresentation of authorship occurs in bureaucracies, including government, corporate, church and trade union bureaucracies. Work that is done by junior workers is commonly signed by higher officials. The official justification is that the person whose name goes on a document is organizationally responsible for that work, but they also are commonly considered to be "responsible" in terms of gaining credit for doing the work, especially by outsiders.

Anybody who needs to have it explained that books by prominent figures are often ghost-written and that politicians and performers employ writers is too out of touch with reality to worry about responsibility of authorship. Apart from the handful of authors who achieve celebrity status, who cares about authorship? The answer is obvious: the author wants to be recognized by his peers (and paid!). In academia, that's a formal citation and a steady income as a professor, plus the perks that come with winning grants, like travel. In commercial writing, typically ghost writers have an agreement with the person they're writing for that they can cite their authorship in their resume. Being able to say you write well enough that Hillary Clinton would put her name on the product carries plenty of status in the fraternity. In show business, being able to say you wrote for David Letterman for ten years is plenty of acknowledgement of authorship. Nobody in those occupations is being victimized.

Worst Justification for Citation

Russell Hunt's 2002 essay, Four Reasons to be Happy about Internet Plagiarism (Teaching Perspectives - St. Thomas University, December 2002, pp.1-5, (on line at:, accessed 29 July 2005)) takes the open-minded stance that internet plagiarism is forcing academia to rethink how and why it gives writing assignments, and the challenge is healthy but offers the following reasons why writers cite sources:

Scholars -- writers generally -- use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their alliances, they bring work to the attention of their reader, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against potential allegations of plagiarism.

Very few of those are particularly respectable reasons for demanding citations. Most seem to be principally concerned with placing the author and her ideas in the academic pecking order so a reader can judge the work on superficial grounds without actually bothering to read it, or so the reader can spot and avoid any writings that challenge her assumptions. This passage is a celebration of form over substance. Conspicuously missing from the list are the principal reasons for citations; they allow readers to check the accuracy of facts, gauge the credibility of the ideas being presented, know whether an idea is solidly established, controversial, or hypothetical, and find further information.

Actually, the games I’ve seen reviewers play with references make a strong case that manuscripts at the review stage should not contain references so that reviewers are forced to base opinions solely on the substance of the paper. Ideally a reviewer would get a completely anonymous manuscript devoid of any clues as to authorship. I'd be willing to bet there would be some shuffling of academic status if that happened. Anyone who couldn't judge the merits of such a manuscript, based solely on its content, is too unfamiliar with the subject matter to be a reviewer.

Everybody's Out of Step But Me

From Perceptions of plagiarism in the use of other authors' language by K. Julliard in Family Medicine, June 1994 vol. 26(6)pp. 356-360.

METHODS: A questionnaire was circulated to medical school faculty, English faculty, health care and non-health care editors, and medical students. Respondents compared writing samples with an original article and determined if any samples displayed plagiarism. (All samples were plagiarism according to published guidelines). RESULTS: The majority of physicians did not perceive any of the samples as being plagiarism and did not consider this type of plagiarism important. The reverse was true of the majority of medical students, English faculty, and nonphysician editors. CONCLUSIONS: While perceptions varied widely within and among all groups studied, some physician faculty members and many other publishing professionals and medical students regard the use of verbatim text from another author without quotation marks as a serious form of plagiarism.

No, the CONCLUSION is that the most highly trained test subjects did NOT consider the text samples plagiarism, even if they were "were plagiarism according to published guidelines." Instead, Julliard concludes that some physicians regarded the practice as plagiarism. The samples, by the way, did credit the sources, so idea theft was not an issue. I'd suggest the reasons physicians disagreed are that:

In real science, when an experiment contradicts theory, it's considered good form to consider whether the theory is wrong; in this case, whether the "published guidelines" are wrong.

Twisted Twister

After the film Twister came out, Steven Kessler claimed that Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton had ripped off the idea for Twister from his screenplay Catch the Wind. He cited the following points of similarity:

  1. The protagonist was motivated to study tornadoes by the loss of a loved one.
  2. There were two rival teams of scientists each trying to develop a tornado probe.
  3. The probes in both cases were named after characters from The Wizard of Oz.

The first point is a stock literary plot device. We might as well charge Spielberg and Crichton, or for that matter Kessler, with stealing ideas from Moby Dick: the protagonist suffers a personal loss and spends the rest of his life at war with an impersonal force of nature. White whale, black funnel cloud; what’s the difference? The second point is also a standard plot device. Personally, I would gladly read a novel or watch a movie where completely rational people plan how to probe a tornado without getting killed, and without unraveling into petty personality conflicts. I see enough conflict and human irrationality in the news and my daily dealings with people, thank you, but most authors feel the need to include some sort of personal conflict. And who would ever dream of naming a tornado probe after a character from The Wizard of Oz, especially since one of the prototype devices used in real research was called TOTO? Isn't Kessler guilty of plagiarizing from The Wizard of Oz?

How Low Can You Go?

Presidential candidate Barack Obama has been accused of plagiarizing from a 2006 speech by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. The offending phrase: "just words."

Deval himself called the charge "extravagant."

Two lousy words? (120 Google hits). Give me a break. (3,860,000 Google hits) Give me a ******* break. (62,600 Google hits) Or, as Anthony Lane wrote in an article on Star Wars in the May 23, 2005 New Yorker, "Break me a ******* give."

Want citations with those? Chicago, APA or MLA?

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Created 01 August, 2005,  Last Update 30 August, 2011

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