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2015-10-20 post date.

Plagiarism is a mortal sin and last taboo – or is it?

Plagiarism is a mortal sin and last taboo – or is it?

JD Salinger, at the start of his short story Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, quotes an ancient Chinese tale about the search for a superlative new horse for Duke Mu of Chin. Chiu-fang Kao is commissioned for the job and recommends a wonderful black stallion, but describes it as a dun mare. Naturally, the duke questions his expertise, but Chiu-fang Kao’s patron replies “Has he really got as far as that? … In making sure of the essentials he forgets the homely details.”
This story is a great comfort to me. When, as increasingly happens, I can remember a philosophical discussion, but forget who it was with, I take it as a sign, not of early onset something or other, but true enlightenment.
There are, however, further consequences. My head is often buzzing with ideas. Whose are they? Academics do, or at least should, suffer “the anxiety of influence”, to use Harold Bloom’s phrase. I can read something I regard as completely mistaken, but re-reading it 10 or 20 years later find, to my horror, that its ideas wormed their way into my own thinking and, eventually, writing.
This is progress, but it does mean that from time to time there is a missing footnote. In the words of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams (pictured), there are blurred lines, although thankfully financially there is not so much at stake.
Academic plagiarism is one of our last mortal sins and taboos. Serious, systematic plagiarism, in which large chunks of text are reused without acknowledgement, is rare and these days and exposed in seconds. The first time I suspected plagiarism in student work it took me more than a month to find the source. Today, I’d simply sigh, search, and discover. This probably means that in academic works we will barely ever see crude plagiarism again.
More subtle unacknowledged influence remains. We go to lectures and seminars, and we hear things about topics we are not yet working on. Later, do we always remember where everything comes from?
More significant is the peer review process. I’ve spent much of the last month going through five referees’ reports suggesting revisions for a new edition of a book of mine. The comments are excellent, and I’ll produce a better text. All the referees will get is a general thanks in my preface. It will have to be general as I don’t even know who they are. It would be impossible to acknowledge every change, however minor. Therefore, it could be that the ideas readers take from the book, and fail to attribute to me, were never mine anyway so, by accident, rough justice is done.
The editors and reviewers of many leading journals work tirelessly to make every published paper as good as it can be. I’ve benefited from this, although it didn’t feel like it at the time, as my work was subjected to wave after wave of searching criticism under increasing time pressure. It is said that an editor at one journal has helped perhaps 20 people by working with them to bring their fledgling ideas up to the highest international standards.
Should we worry? Are we not, after all, engaged in the disinterested search for truth, so what matters are the ideas and arguments, not who has them? Maybe. It must be admitted that many are also engaged in the not-so-disinterested search for a career, in competition with others who will have had different levels of help. Still, the academic community, possibly even the wider world, profits from having the best possible work published, however it comes about. Perhaps that is a cause for celebration: we are much more a community of scholars than we ever noticed.
Jonathan Wolff is professor of philosophy at University College London and dean of arts and humanities