Plagiarism: Another Perspective

Some time ago, I came across Brian Martin's article "Plagiarism: a misplaced emphasis" which was published in the Journal of Information Ethics (1994). He lists several commonly accepted practices of what he calls institutionalized plagiarism that fit the common definition of plagiarism (i.e., taking someone else's words or ideas without crediting appropriately):

  • ghostwriting (e.g., for famous people)
  • honorary authorship (e.g, a lab supervisor's name is listed as author but contributed little or nothing to the paper)
  • political speechwriting
  • beauracratic documents (i.e, "junior workers" write documents signed by their senior officials)

Institutionalized plagiarism, as he notes, seldom merits attention, although as in the case of Southern Illinois University (see Plagiarism: Perspective and Context), other circumstances can turn the spotlight on it. In contrast, what he calls competitive plagiarism (e.g., the taking of words or ideas from those whose careers are dependent upon those ideas, sometimes by scholars or journalists and more often by students, whether intentional or not) is considered "a serious offence against scholarship [that] should be condemned and penalized." Martin says that we need to reverse how we view competitive and insitutionalized plagiarism; that is, the institutionalized form should be considered more egregious:

By this analysis, competitive plagiarism is given too much attention and condemned in far too extreme terms. Given the pervasiveness of plagiarism, it should be treated as a common, often inadvertent problem, rather like speeding on the road or cheating on income taxes. Most cases should be dealt with as matters of etiquette rather than "theft." Otherwise, the danger is that plagiarism allegations can be a way of mounting unscrupulous attacks on individuals who are targeted for other reasons.

Contrary to the case of competitive plagiarism, the issue of institutionalized plagiarism deserves more attention. It serves as a focus on power inequality and intellectual exploitation. The term "plagiarism" needs to be brought into common use to describe ghostwriting and attribution of authorship to top bureaucrats and officials, as a way of challenging those practices. In situations of intellectual exploitation, the demand for proper acknowledgment of work can be a subversive one. Since hierarchical and bureaucratized work structures foster institutionalized plagiarism, demanding fair credit for work done exposes and challenges these structures.

In summary, concern about plagiarism has been diverted from the most serious and pervasive problems and channelled into excessive concern about less serious problems. This process is clearly one that serves the interests of the biggest intellectual exploiters.

It's an interesting perspective. Do the words of institutional figures belong to them or to the institution? In my earlier post, an SIU spokesperson said that they were the property of the insitution's. I suppose it's similar to a company owning the patents created by their research employees. I wonder, Would it be considered plagiarism, then, if an institutional figure went to work at another place and used a speech written by the first place? Regardless, plagiarism remains a matter of perspective and context rather than a clearly defined practice.