Philosophical robbery

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Wed, May 28, 2014 - 10:19:20

In 1868 I read Dr. Holmes's poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my "Innocents Abroad" with. Ten years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; and so when I said, "I know now where I stole, but who did you steal it from?" he said, "I don't remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anybody who had."

—Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) in a letter to Anne Macy, reprinted in Anne Sullivan Macy, The Story Behind Helen Keller. Doubleday, Doran, and Co., 1933.

Accounts of plagiarism are epidemic. Charged are book authors, students, journalists, scientists, executives, and politicians. Technology makes it easier to find, cut, and paste another’s words—and easier to detect transgressions. Quotation marks and a citation only sometimes address the issue. Cats and mice work on tools for borrowing and detection, but technology is shifting the underlying context in ways that will be more important.

Plagiarism or synthesis: Plague or progress?

We appreciate novelty in art and technology. We may also nod at the adage, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Twain isn’t alone in questioning the emphasis on originality that emerged in the Enlightenment. Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation is a compelling analysis of the borrowing that underlies literary and scientific achievement. Although we encourage writers to cite influences, we know that a full accounting isn’t possible. Further complicating any analysis is the prevalence of cryptomnesia or unconscious borrowing, which fascinated Twain and has been experimentally demonstrated. Writers of undeniable originality, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, borrowed heavily without realizing it.

Believing that an idea is original could motivate one to work harder, perhaps borrowing more and building a stronger synthesis. The aspiration to be original could have this benefit. I’ve seen students, faculty, and product designers lose interest when shown that their work was not entirely “invented here.” They might have been more productive if unaware of the precedent.

An earlier post on creativity, which cited a professor who directs students to submit work in which every sentence is borrowed, proposed that the availability of information and the visibility of precedents will shift our focus from originality to a stronger embrace of synthesis. It seems a cop-out to say that synthesis is a form of originality. The distinction is evident in “NIH syndrome,” the reluctance to build overtly on the work of others. 

Prior to considering when citation is and is not required or perhaps even a good thing, let’s establish that there is no universal agreement on best practices.

Cultural differences

Some professors say, “I learn more from my students than they do from me.” As a professor I learned from students, but I hope they learned more from me, because I was a slow learner. One afternoon at culturally heterogeneous UC Irvine, I realized that a grade-grubber who had all term shown no respect for my time by arguing endlessly for points had in fact been sincerely demonstrating respect for the course and for my regard, which he felt a higher grade would reflect. Raised in a haggling culture abroad, he assumed that I understood that his efforts demonstrated respect, and almost fell on the floor in terror when I said mildly and constructively that he was developing a reputation for being difficult. It had a happy ending.

The faculty shared plagiarism stories. My first lecture in a “technology and society” course included a plagiarism handout. I explained it, asked if they understood it, and sometimes asked everyone who planned to plagiarize to raise a hand “because one of you probably will, and it will be a lot easier if you let me know now.” Gentler than some colleagues, I only failed a plagiarist on the assignment. But that was enough to affect the grades of students, many of whom were Asian Americans whose families counted on them to become engineers. Parents dropped some at the university in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon.

In 1995 I spent a sabbatical in a top lab at a leading Asian university. I discovered that uncited quotation was acceptable. Students plagiarized liberally. Uncited sentences and paragraphs from my publications turned up in term papers for my class. I thought, “OK, we make a big deal of quotation marks and a reference. They don’t.” This didn’t shock me. My first degrees were in math and physics, where proof originators were rarely cited or mentioned. No “Newton, 1687.”

An end-of-term event riveted my attention. Each senior undergraduate in the lab was assigned a paper to present to the faculty and students as their own work, in the first person singular! Organized plagiarism! It was brilliant. The student must understand the work inside out. A student who is asked “Why did you include a certain step?” can’t say “I don’t know why the authors did that.”

I recognized it. I once took a method acting class. Good actors are plagiarists, marshalling their resources by convincing themselves that the words in a script are their own. Plagiarism as an effective teaching device!? Be that as it may, after years of teaching, one of the two grades I regret giving was to a fellow who, before my discovery, may have followed parental guidance: work hard to find and reproduce relevant passages. He just hadn’t absorbed our custom of bracketing them with small curlicues.

Copyright violation

Plagiarism is not a crime, but violating copyright is. U.S. copyright law isn’t fully sorted out, but it represents a weighing of commercial and use issues, and a not yet fully defined concept of “fair use” exceptions that considers the length, percentage, and centrality of the reproduced material, the effect of copying on the market value of the original, and the intent (a parody or critical review that reduces the original’s market value may include excerpts).

My focus is on ethical and originality considerations, so for copyright infringement guidance consult your attorney. I once inquired into how much a copyrighted paper must be changed to republish it. I found a vast gulf in opinion between seasoned authors (“very little”) and publishers (“most of it”). Publishers haven’t seemed to bother about scientific work, but with plagiarism-detection and micropayment-collection software, that could change.

Factors in weighing originality and ethics

1. How exact is the copy, from identical to paraphrase to “idea theft”? What is the transgression—lack of giving credit? An explicit or implied false assertion of originality or effort? A false claim to understand the material?

Students are told, “Put it in your own words, then it isn’t plagiarism.” This is true when the information is general knowledge. Paraphrasing a passage from a textbook, a lecture, or a friend’s work may suffice. Information from a unique source, such as a published paper, generally deserves and is improved by a source citation.

If omitting a citation causes readers to infer that an author originated the work, it crosses the line. For example, a journalist who uses the work of other journalists, even if every sentence is rewritten, creates a false impression of having done the reporting and is considered a plagiarist. Crediting the original journalist solves the problem if copyright isn’t violated. There are grey areas—reports of press conferences may not identify those who asked the questions. When a copyright expires, anyone can publish the work, but to not credit the author would be bad form.

With student work that is intended to develop or demonstrate mastery, copying undermines the basic intent. Especially digital copying—some teachers have students write out work by hand, figuring that even if copied from a friend’s paper, something could stick as it goes from eyes through brain to fingers. For a student who has truly mastered a concept, copying “busy work” is less troubling. (We hope computer-based adaptive learning, like one-to-one tutoring, will reduce busy work.)

Idea theft is an often-expressed concern of students and faculty. We may agree that ideas are cheap and following through is the hard part, but to credit a source of an idea is appropriate even when the borrowing is conceptual.

2. When is attribution insufficient?

As noted above, attribution won’t shield an author from illegal copyright violation. Although the law is unsettled, copying with or without attribution may be allowed for “transformative works” to which the borrower has made substantive additions. Transformative use wouldn’t justify idea theft—finding inspiration in the work of others is routine, but not developing the idea of someone who might intend to develop it further.

3. When is attribution unnecessary? How is technology changing this?

In cases of cryptomnesia or unconscious plagiarism of the sort Mark Twain owned up to, attribution is absent because the author is unaware of the theft. Experiments have shown that unconscious borrowing is easy to induce and undoubtedly widespread. Nevertheless, a few years ago, a young author had a positively reviewed book withdrawn by the publisher after parallels were noticed in a book she acknowledged having read often and loved. The media feeding frenzy was unjustified; it was clearly cryptomnesia, with few or no passages reproduced verbatim.

Homer passed on epic tales without crediting those he learned them from. Oral cultures can’t afford the baggage. Change was slow and is not complete, and today cultures vary in their distance from oral traditions. When printing arrived, “philosophical robbery” was rampant. Early journals reprinted material from other journals without permission. Benjamin Franklin invented some of his maxims and appropriated others without credit. Only recently have we decided to expend paper and ink to credit past and present colleagues for the benefit of present and future readers.

Shakespeare borrowed heavily from an earlier Italian work in writing Romeo and Juliet, on which 1957’s West Side Story was based. The first version of West Side Story was shelved in 1947 when the authors realized how much they’d borrowed from other plays that were also based on Shakespeare. Twain again: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. . . . It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone, or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did.”

“Gladwellesque” books are artful syntheses of others’ work. Some of the contributing scholars may grumble that they should share in royalties, but at least they get credit, which is their due and which gives authority to a synthesis. However, a writer constantly weighs when contributions merit overt credit. In the natural sciences citation is often omitted. It slows the reader and distracts from the elegance of the pure science. It forces a writer to take sides in historical paternity/maternity quarrels and decide whether his or her slight improvement in the elegance of a proof also merits mention.

In less formal writing the custom is to acknowledge less. Magazines may limit or altogether eliminate citations, allowing only occasional mentions in the text.

Consider this essay. I cited a primary source for the Twain quotations, but not the secondary source where I found them. I didn’t note that the first complaint of “philosophical robbery” that I know about was by the chemist Robert Boyle soon after the printing press came into use, or where I learned that. I didn’t credit Wikipedia for the origins of West Side Story.

Technology is rapidly expanding the realm of information that I consider common knowledge that needs no citation. My rule of thumb is that if a reader can find the source in fewer than five seconds with a search engine and obvious keywords, I don’t need to cite it, although sometimes I will. For example, anyone can quickly learn that “there is nothing new under the sun” comes from Ecclesiastes.

Reasons for omission vary. I provided a source for cryptomnesia but not for the author who fell afoul of it, feeling that after the lack of media generosity she has a “right to be forgotten.” It is also a tangled web we weave when we practice to communicate directly (a transformative borrowing I shall leave uncredited).

As we focus on building plagiarism detectors to trip up students, technology will make all of our borrowings more visible, the conscious and the unconscious. There is no turning back, but the emerging emphasis on synthesis may resonate more with the oral tradition of aggregation than with the recent focus on individual analysis. In the swarm as in the tribe, credit is unnecessary.

Posted in: on Wed, May 28, 2014 - 10:19:20

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin works on support for education at Microsoft. Access these and related papers at under Prototype Systems.
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