21st Century Plagiarism
Jon Dorbolo

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Moore’s Law (1965) predicted that chip speed and storage density will double every 18 months to two years. As prognostications go, Gordon Moore was dead-on so far and the implications of this trend for information flow are fantastic. When the rate of information flow is huge and increasing, we need to consider where all this new information will come from. Part of the answer appears to be that much of the data making up the quickening stream is recycled and duplicated. Some of that duplication involves duplicity, leading to what some commentators call a plague of plagiarism.

Whether plagiarism is pandemic or even significantly more frequent in this century than it was in the last is open to question. Yet, very recently some of the fundamental institutions that we rely on for maintaining the integrity of information have been scandalized with cases of plagiarism: academia, journalism, and government. Perhaps, even more scandalous is the relative indifference with which these cases are met. It is true that some cases have led to condemnations and resignations, but unlike the hapless student caught cheating, the high profile plagiarists often profit handsomely from their guile.

Academics stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the need to duly chastise students for plagiarism. A traditional (perhaps apocryphal) story told among graduate students at my alma mater involves an undergraduate who submitted a final project for a short story course, penned with the student’s signature and with the title “The Tell Tale Heart.” Presumably the student had sought a dusty and forgotten tome from the old stacks of the library on the theory that even an English teacher could not have read them all. Of course, the moral of this teaching tale is that we don’t need to read them all, just enough of the right ones. And which is more appalling about this case to educators, the student’s naked chicanery or gaping ignorance? I’ll wager that most academics from TA to emeritus have at least one plagiarism story to tell. We all laugh and shake our heads at the audacity of it.

Recycling History
At the same time, academia is increasingly caught up in public displays of plagiarism. Among these are historian Stephen E. Ambrose, whose best seller "The Wild Blue" (2001) contains extensive copying and paraphrasing from other sources. Ambrose first denied the charges, then apologized with the explanation “that the omission of the quote marks was inadvertent” (Lewis, 2002, a). Comparing the passages in question from “The Wild Blue”and the doppelganger sources, I’d say that any student would flunk and face disciplinary action. Ambrose just keeps cranking out the best sellers. The evidence seems also to indicate that Ambrose is an old hand at subtle (and not so subtle) plagiarism, even stemming back to his 1963 dissertation and through several of his works to present (Lewis, 2002, c).

Pulitzer prizewinning Harvard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarizing portions of her book "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" (1987) from at least three other books. Goodwin flatly denies the charges (Goodwin, 2002), though she later withdrew the book from circulation. Even a cursory examination of the passages and alleged sources provide sufficient basis to condemn a student who handed such a work in for a grade. Goodwin’s prestige has taken some blows, even though the scandals may have stimulated interest in her books.

Recycling News
Journalism has been the source of numerous cases of fraud and plagiarism in the last few years. Reporter Jayson Blair resigned from the New York Times in May 2003 after dozens of his NYT stories were shown to be plagiarisms or sheer fabrications (Kurtz, 2003). Blair expressed his shame by signing a book deal for “Burning Down My Master’s House” for reportedly a six figure advance. The book is expected to be a best seller (Arce, 2003). How much of the book Blair actually wrote himself is not revealed.

While Blair’s stories were on weighty issues, even light journalism gave way to plagiarism when Mike Barnicle was caught using lines from a book by George Carlin in a Boston Globe column penned as Barnicle’s own. This flap revealed a long line of frauds and lifts performed by Barnicle (Mashberg, 1998).

The above are instances from a large number of plagiarism cases in academia and journalism. It is important that academia and journalism are both counted on to function as guardians of the integrity of the information record. Academics, such as historians, research and write in accordance with standards of the field. Despite the controversies about history, we expect that historians will get some main facts right and provide relevant contextual information that lead to interpretations of the past. Journalists investigate and report of current history. We rely on journalism to reveal important information about what is going on in the world right now.
Plagiarism and other duplicity among historians and journalists creates a serious distrust leading to cynicism. Like Descartes’ creeping doubts about the reliability of his senses, we find ourselves with increasing suspicion about the reliability of expert information. When enough trust is eroded away, conspiracy theory (e.g. malign genie, Illuminati, or New World Order) is not far behind.

Plagiarism is a fairly modern concept, being the marriage of the concept of intellectual property with the concept of property rights. The contemporary notion of plagiarism can be characterized;

Appropriation and reproduction of another producer’s content as one’s own without just attribution.
This characterization does not cover all uses of the word; “plagiarism.” For instance, educators speak of “self-plagiarism” when a student recycles old work for course credits. Not all educators are agreed on the values of this sort of plagiarism, as many students would likely start at the claim that it is plagiarism at all. It may be that the characterization given above identifies features that are functionally necessary to instances of plagiarism, but that those features are not sufficient to cover all forms of plagiarism. To see how the characterization works, consider the most egregious and blatant case of plagiarism I have ever heard of: the February 2003 British War Dossier.

An Astonishing Paradigm Case of Plagiarism
On January 30, 2003 the British Prime Minister’s office (No. 10 Downing Street) released a report titled “Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation.” This dossier purported to be summaries and conclusions drawn from state-of-the-art information and analysis from the British intelligence services. The dossier was released to coincide with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations, which was to present the hard evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The entire process was an orchestrated prelude to the war which the U.S. And U.K. claimed was necessary to disarm Iraq. Secretary Powell referred to the British Dossier as a major piece of the evidentiary picture during his presentation to the UN. The main use of the British Dossier was as an independent confirmation of U.S. intelligence to the effect that Iraq possessed large stocks of biological and chemical weapons, ready to deploy in battle; that Iraq was seeking and close to obtaining nuclear weapons; and that Iraq was an active supporter of terrorist groups.

The remarkable and deplorable aspect of the British dossier is that it is an act of wholesale plagiarism. Much of the dossier is cut and pasted directly from the web, with spelling and grammatical errors intact. Large portions of a dissertation by former University of California student Ibrahim al-Marashi were copied into the dossier without attribution. The same is true for portions of articles from the Jane’s Intelligence Review as well as books.

The Dossier was appropriated directly from other authors without just attribution and presented as a product of British intelligence and No. 10 Downing Street. These facts plainly fit the characterization of plagiarism given above. The British Dossier is a clear case of plagiarism and the Prime Minister’s office even admitted that the dissertation and other sources were copied into the dissertation;
“Downing Street yesterday apologized for its failure to acknowledge that much of its latest dossier on Iraq was lifted from academic sources....the dossier issued last week - later found to include a plagiarized section written by an American PhD student - was compiled by mid-level officials in Alastair Campbell's Downing Street communications department with only cursory approval from intelligence or even Foreign Office sources” (White, et al., 2003)
The admission was qualified with claims that the plagiarism was a “minor blunder” and that it all did not matter anyway, since all of the information in it is true.

Three important points about the nature and impact of plagiarism arise with the Downing Street spin to minimize the charge of plagiarism:
1) The purpose of the Dossier was to serve as evidence from authoritative and independent sources to back up the U.S. claims about Iraq’s weapons capability. To demure that the plagiarism (e.g. falsified source) does not matter because the information in it is true amounts to maintaining that the claims need no evidence after all. The Dossier was to serve as credible evidence. When that credibility is damaged, it will not do to simply reassert the claims as true. Imagine a student arguing that....while, no, s/he did not actually write the story that s/he handed in, s/he should still get a good grade because it is a good story all the same (indeed, “The Tell Tale Heart”!)
2) Astonishingly, the Ibrahim al-Marashi dissertation that is copied into the Dossier is from 1991 and is about the Iraqi weapon’s capabilities and political structure as it existed before the 1991 Gulf War. Along with the proper attribution, the Downing Street plagiarists left out the date. This makes the Dossier appear to be a current intelligence analysis of 2003 Iraq. The major question all along was whether UN inspectors had effectively found and destroyed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction between 1991 and 2003. Many people claimed that the weapons capability had been neutralized. The U.S. and U.K. claimed that UN efforts were ineffective; hence the necessity for war. Thus to reintroduce pre-1991 documentation is irrelevant in the extreme. Doing so without identifying the 12 year difference is deceptive in the extreme.
3) The Downing Street plagiarists did not leave the original text as it was, but tuned the language to paint an even more sinister picture. For example, a slight change from Ibrahim al-Marashi’s point that Iraqi Intelligence was tasked with “monitoring the Ba'th Party, as well as other political parties” to “spying within the Ba'th Party, as well as other political parties.” In place of “aiding opposition groups in hostile regimes” the British Dossier render’s “supporting terrorist organizations in hostile regimes.” The pattern continues, keeping the basic text and idea with paraphrases and substitutions in vocabulary – always in order to increase the sense of threat. Similar twists are made with information pasted in from the Jane’s Intelligence Review and the other sources.

The British Dossier case is as clear a case of plagiarism as one could have. Just as some students will plagiarize by assembling chunks of text gleaned from the web into a somewhat presentable paper by paraphrasing parts and adding transitions, so did the British Government office create a mosaic of texts taken from the web (not a secret spy web, mind you, but the same sources that are open to everyone, including at the time Saddam Hussein). Just as the student conceals identities of the authors and elements of the text that reveal genuine authorship, the British Government office constructed a document out of different public sources, and by concealing the original authorship (as well as dates, unfavorable conclusions, etc.) they produced a work that appeared to be a product of state-of-the-art contemporary British Intelligence. The British Dossier is an; Appropriation and reproduction of another producers’ content as their own without just attribution. Hence the characterization holds in real world cases and helps in analyzing the deceptive features of those cases.

The Harms of Plagiarism
Plagiarism is frequently treated as if the main, or only, moral wrong done is to the genuine author. That is why plagiarism is often described as a form of theft - stealing words. The wrong done to the original author is part of the ethical analysis of plagiarism. Yet, stealing words (content) is not the sole or even main wrong done in acts of plagiarism such as we have considered. Three stakeholders are involved in an act of plagiarism and all three suffer wrongs.

1. The original author is wronged as is widely recognized. In the Jayson Blair case, the work of other journalists was appropriated without any credit to them. Their effort was stolen. In the British Dossier, the genuine authors also suffered the wrong of having their own words applied to a purpose different from (in the case of Jane’s Intelligence Review, in direct opposition to) what they originally intended. This wrong goes beyond stealing content and ideas, it is an abuse of the stolen content.

2. The audience is wronged by being misled as to the source and relevance of the text. In some cases this wrong may not have strong consequences (though it will always have some; e.g. a false belief as to who is the author of the work). In the British Dossier case, the consequences are as strong as one can imagine. The result was war with thousands of deaths and injuries. The world was misled regarding the relevance of the information and choices were limited by that deception. These are extremely strong consequences which makes the British Dossier one of the most serious cases of plagiarism in history. Thus it is an important case to analyze and clarify.

3. The plagiarist is wronged by producing a false representation of their own thoughts. One may think that the words of the report may well have accorded perfectly with the thoughts of the plagiarists, which why they choose to use them. Yet this point makes a confusion between a representation of thoughts and the process of representing one’s thoughts. There will be many instances of texts that say, in effect, what we have in mind. The texts accord well with our thoughts – sometimes almost as if we had written them (e.g. “I wish I had said that.”) But that is not the same as making the effort to express one’s genuine thoughts. When we work to tell the story or present the account as best we can, we participate in a process of testing, comparing, adjusting, evaluating, revising, and so on. These parts of the process are what make thinking an intelligent activity. We learn as we work to express our thoughts. Finding a ready-made expression of one’s thoughts removes the effort of thinking. The British Dossier plagiarists seem to have limited their thinking to making slight revisions in the text in order to conceal the source and to add threat. Had they worked sincerely through the process of finding the best information from the relevant sources and worked to craft it into the best case possible given the evidence, then they may have come much closer to the truth. As it is, the plagiarists trapped themselves in a false room and closed all available exists and windows. From within that room, only war was possible. The plagiarists cuts him/herself off from her/his own thinking, thus limiting the potential for growth of self and a stronger grasp of reality. This is the gut level reason that many educators object so stenuously to plagiarism from students. By cutting and pasting words in place of generating original expressions of genuine ideas, the plagiarizing student sabotages their learning and potential development. Plagiarism in school is anti-educational.
Computing and Plagiarism
The factors most often cited these days as probable causes of the purported increase in plagiarism (and I’ve not seen empirical evidence that plagiarism has increased over the last century) is computing and the internet. Selecting, cutting, and pasting content is a basic function of personal computing. Word processors make it easy to not only insert and move text, but they allow search and replace functions that practically automate paraphrasing. It is possible that generations who learn to write via computer will incorporate the re-use of text into their very notion of writing. Such a generation may view the portability of content and the recycling of text in a different way from the older generation. If this is so, then we must take care to make sure that we are not interposing the dis-values of plagiarism into the process of writing itself.

The internet, especially the world wide web, is frequently cited as a main culprit in plagiarism. It is true that cut & paste technique existed before computers (scissors and paste pot), and it is true that plagiarists were using print sources to crib from long before the web, but it is also true that finding, acquiring, and manipulating content is far easier than ever before. Students commonly veer in the plagiarism realm by appropriating too freely from web sources. It is at this border that it can be difficult to distinguish unconscious plagiarism from plagiarism by design. Carrol and Perfect demonstrate that writers can “appropriate unconsciously the ideas of previous writers ....but have a strong sense of conviction of the originality of those ideas.” (Caroll, 2002, p.149). There is an irregular area of ambiguity in the borders between plagiarism and scholarship. Learning to perform original scholarship and writing involves learning how to negotiate that border. Novices may not be able to operate in this ambiguous zone at all. Roig demonstrated that many learners are unable to distinguish between paraphrase and plagiarism, even when given the evidence to examine (Roig, 1997). Perceiving originality is a learned skill.
The internet, web, web phones, media players, and the ever increasing variety and complexity of information technologies may well introduce new ambiguities into the borderlands between plagiarism and effective information use. If plagiarism matters as an ethical force in the social and personal realms, then it is necessary to investigate the effects of information technology upon the concepts, limits, and values of plagiarism. Computing savvy philosophers are the obvious candidates for this. Computing and plagiarism must get a firm seat in the near future of the philosophical agenda. Or else, general trust in the authority of common information will continue to erode.

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BBC. 2003. “A piece of plagiarism?” BBC. February, 7.

Carrol, Marie and Perfect, Timothy J. 2002. “Student’s experiences of unconscious plagiarism: did I beget or forget?” In Applied Metacognition. Ed. Perfect, Timothy J. and Schwartz, Bennett L. pp. 149-166.

Crader, Bo . 2002. “A Historian and Her Sources.” The Weekly Standard. January, 28.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2002. “How I Caused That Story: A historian explains why someone else's writing wound up in her book.” Time. January, 27. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,197614,00.html

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Lewis, Mark, b. 2002. “Doris Kearns Goodwin And The Credibility Gap.” Forbes.com. February, 27. http://www.forbes.com/home/2002/02/27/0227goodwin.html

Lewis, Mark, c. 2002. “Ambrose Problems Date Back To Ph.D. Thesis .” Forbes.com. May, 5.

Mashberg, Tom. 1998. “Repeat Offender.” Salon.com. August 20.

Roig, M. 1997. “When college student’s attempts at paraphrasing become instances of potential plagiarism.” Psychological Reports. 84, 973-982.

White, Michael and MacAskill, Michael and Norton-Taylor, Richard. 2003. “Downing St admits blunder on Iraq dossier: Plagiarism row casts shadow over No 10's case against Saddam.” The Guardian Unlimited. February 8.

White, Michael and Whitaker, Brian. 2003. “UK war dossier a sham, say experts
British 'intelligence' lifted from academic articles.” BBC. February 7, 2003

2004 © Jon Dorbolo