Plagiarism by academics and students receives too much attention in universities and is condemned in far too extreme terms, according to an Australian researcher at Wollongong University.
Given the pervasiveness of plagiarism among students and some academics, it should be treated as a matter of etiquette rather than "theft", Brian Martin says. Otherwise, he argues, a danger exists that allegations of plagiarism could be used to mount unscrupulous attacks on individuals who have been targeted for other reasons.
Dr Martin says the focus instead should be switched to the behaviour of administrators who routinely attach their names to papers, reports and memoranda that have actually been written by underlings.
Writing in the latest issue of the American Journal of Information Ethics, Dr Martin says this form of "institutionalised plagiarism" deserves more attention.
"Institutional plagiarism 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 bureaucrats and officials, as a way of challenging those practices."
Dr Martin is a senior lecturer in the department of science and technology studies at Wollongong and has been researching and writing about intellectual exploitation for many years.
In his paper, Dr Martin discusses the preoccupation in universities with what he calls "competitive plagiarism" - where someone copies the ideas or material of another. Concentrating on this sort of academic sin serves the interests of those who benefit from institutional plagiarism.
These "elites" enjoy official credit for the work of others and their status and authority is enhanced, while relatively little status and authority goes to subordinates whose work has been given less than its fair share of credit.
"If a president were to introduce a speech by saying, 'I'm now going to read a speech written by . . .', this would undoubtedly reduce the president's aura and thus the status of the office.
"Similarly, if an important institutional policy were openly acknowledged to be the work of junior employees, it might be asked why they were not the ones launching and explaining the policy."
Institutional plagiarism also reduces the accountability of subordinates, Dr Martin says. They are less likely to take extreme care with their work when they know that others will be officially responsible.
As well, institutional plagiarism reduces innovation, causes alienation and represents inefficient use of the talents of the workers.