Plagiarism is not a victimless offence

Dismissing plagiarism as a low-level academic misdemeanour ignores the potentially deadly consequences of letting cheating go unchecked, says David A. Sanders

September 2, 2020
An actor impersonating Ben Franklin
Source: Getty

When my son was applying to college, he received a recruitment letter from the University of Pennsylvania. On the envelope was a quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin, UPenn’s founder: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

But which 18th-century American founding father would have ever said “involve me?” A little research indicated that the aphorism had also been cited as a Navajo or Chinese proverb. The etymologist Barry Popik concludes that a very similar statement was made by a motivational speaker named Herbert True in 1978. Benjamin Franklin never said it.

I contacted the UPenn admissions department, who assured me that the marketing department – responsible for the envelope – would never use a fake quotation. Despite my request, marketing never contacted me.

My observation did not appear to lead to much institutional soul-searching. UPenn president Amy Gutmann, chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, continued to attribute the statement to Franklin. It featured prominently, too, in the university’s 2015 commencement programme and even appeared on the final page of the UPenn 2018-19 financial report; I hope they audit their numbers better than their quotations. I also heard the chair of the faculty senate attribute it to Franklin at my son’s UPenn commencement (yes, he attended despite the erroneous citation).

Clearly UPenn wants to suggest that the same maxim embodies both the principle of the institution’s foundation by America’s greatest polymath and its current pedagogical principle. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that an institution dedicated to scholarship would engage in such a thorough distortion of the historical record.

I was reminded of this matter by recent articles in Times Higher Education and elsewhere suggesting that plagiarism – defined by US regulations as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit” – should not be punished. Such apologists seem to believe that plagiarism is merely an issue of intellectual-property protection: ideas should be shared freely without having to submit to those with tenuous claims to immutable truths.

However, the more pertinent question is what motivates those who plagiarise. Their behaviour is fundamentally dishonest. They steal the results or actual text of others and present them as their own. Moreover, it is not primarily the harm to the originators of the scholarly contributions that is relevant. Their actions render all the material they present as untrustworthy.

But does it really matter, for instance, who first discerned that Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was based on the biblical story of Saul and David? Does it really matter that students are submitting essays that rely on the late US English studies professor Julian Moynahan’s work without citing it? Especially given that Hardy himself committed this act of “plagiarism”?

Perhaps not. In the sciences, however, proper attribution can be quite consequential. Plagiarised text or data might originate from an article that has been corrected or retracted. Corporations have been known to “ghostwrite” articles that have other individuals as claimed authors in order to promote or protect their own products. Recently, the research of a number of courageous investigators has shown that some companies reconstitute novel papers from pre-existing data, text and phrasal templates and sell them to “scientists” who publish the collages under their own names. Such plagiarism obscures the bias of the originators of the results or composition.

In my own experience as an analyst of the scientific literature, I have encountered much plagiarism. In the life sciences, review articles are cited more often on average than research articles, so researchers tend to proliferate the number of review articles on which they are listed as an author in order to boost their “h-index”, a manipulable pseudometric of researcher productivity. Short cuts, including the extensive recycling of text that one or more of the review authors have previously published, are disturbingly common. In other cases, review articles broadly plagiarise the articles of others.

Plagiarism can even have fatal consequences. In scientific literature, it is common for text to include numbers and units using special characters such as Greek letters. But copying and pasting such units can result in their alteration. I have encountered examples of highly problematic articles, including, for example, a plagiarised text that substituted mg (milligram) for µg (microgram), resulting in a thousand-fold increase in the reported concentration required for the effectiveness of a drug. Certainly, unit errors can be introduced into any article during the publication process, but authors are far less likely to proofread carefully a section of an article that they did not even write.

The response to the coronavirus outbreak is a perfect example of the importance of proper citation. Members of the public are taking action on the basis of poorly sourced and misattributed information. If we allow the scholarly literature itself to abandon its adherence to ethical standards of citation, the situation would be even worse.

Rather than reducing their emphasis on fighting plagiarism, academic organisations should redouble their efforts to combat it and defy the post-truth ethos. An institution of higher education should not be propagating a historical lie.

As Benjamin Franklin actually did say (at least, according to the 1740 edition of the almanack Poor Richard’s Maxims): “Tricks and treachery are the practice of fools that have not wit enough to be honest.”

David A. Sanders is an associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University.

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Reader's comments (5)

Does it really matter who first discerned that the that names in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were based on dialect in The Mayor of Casterbridge (no idea who, but not me)? Even in the case of the humanities, I would argue that the corruption of the historical record by plagiarism is harmful. Someone might wonder about why it took seventy years for anyone to recognize (at least in print) that the Book of Samuel was the original for the plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Was there a change in the theory of literary criticism that made possible that realization? Without the appropriate citation to the Moynahan article (“The Mayor of Casterbridge and the Old Testament's First Book of Samuel: A Study of Some Literary Relationships” 1956), the exploration of this topic would be prevented. You can find our more about the scientific paper mills. David Sanders
The other key issue with plagiarism is that it undermines all other degrees and equivilent research because it casts doubt on their varasity. Plagiarists undermine all academic study by eroding trust in what is acutally honest research and what is just regurgitated, making it harder to gain factual insights into whatever area of study they work in. I would also concur that the humanities do suffer from plagiarists, as on material level if work is passed off and misrepresented it can lead to both blind alleys (such as the Hitler Diaries) and use as propaganda against the very subject it stemmed from.
Plagiarism is theft (of another person's words); plagiarism is misappropriation (of another person's words). Of course it's not a victimless crime. In the example from UPenn, it appears to be a case of false attribution of a set of words to Franklin. He too has been harmed by this as has whoever the words were misapprorpiated from. According to Quote Investigator, there are several possible candidates: Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Benjamin Franklin crafted this expression. The earliest partial match known to QI occurred in the writings of Xunzi (Xun Kuang), a Confucian philosopher who lived in the third century B.C.E. There are several other candidates, each of whom wrote or said something more or less like that. By the 1970s, a version rather like the UPenn one had started to evolve. In 1990, the words apparently appeared in the new Franklin Institute's brochure but the Franklin Institute knew better than the attribute it to their Ben. Attributing a statement to Confucius, Franklin, Einstein, Churchill is a clumsy device for giving it "Wisdom" status.
There is a huge difference between 'based on' and 'copied'. Hardy did not plagiarise. He took a plot-structure and reimagined it for a quite time and place, with a quite different set of intellectual and emotional complexities, as authors continually do.
quite different time and place

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