Do you copy?

August 2, 2002

Valerie Atkinson fails to advise on some fine opportunities for plagiarism presented by the worldwide web: simply put the material on a webpage and backdate it (Soapbox, THES , July 26). Any litigant is thereby turned into the plagiarist unless they can prove that the pages were not already in existence.

One maxim to follow is that to copy from one work is plagiary, to copy from two is research. That is, you need to do it more, not less.

But the true, if unwritten, rule for being a successful academic is to remember everything you come across, and forget where you heard it. Partial memory (aka. "constructivism") is the key. Exact memory for words simply leaves you open to copyright violations and other charges. A finely judged partial memory is what is required: retain the sense, lose the words; retain the lab results, "forget" where you got the sample of virus from; use real fossil material, but omit to record that they are pieced together from several different finds to look like one.

After all, if you are too original no one will "recognise" the value of what you say. Most discussion omits the other side of plagiarism: falsely claiming others' authority for your baseless arguments. This is a far bigger problem: listing references that are inaccurate or that, if checked, actually do not say what was claimed and so do not lend their authority to the argument. Plagiarism brings a scholarly exactness too often missing from much that is published.

As conservative referees we should reject more papers on the grounds of too much imagination, too little exact plagiarism. Support the conservation of knowledge in these days of global academic meltdown.

Steve Draper
University of Glasgow

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