Experts look for the line between unconscious and deliberate plagiarism

January 10, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

In a lengthy “Salon debate” published today, several experts discuss the difference between unconscious and conscious plagiarism, why it matters, and how to tell the difference. Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior faculty, ethics, reporting and writing:

When we focus too narrowly on the issue of plagiarism, we ignore the bigger issue of intellectual honesty. Whenever you are part of a creative process, as a writer, a visual artist or composer, the most significant signal you can send your audience is a thought trail that lets them transparently see the forces that influenced you as you made your piece.

Tim Perfect, professor of experimental psychology, University of Plymouth

How then are we to distinguish between accidental plagiarism and deliberate fraud? We can never be completely certain in an individual case, but we should recall that human memory is very good at remembering the gist of past events, while details are easily lost. This applies to both genuine recall and plagiarism. Given that unconscious plagiarism occurs when memory is fairly weak, it follows that it is more likely that the gist will be plagiarized than the exact details. Whenever the claim of plagiarism rests upon the exact form of the idea (the adjectives used, or the order of a sequence of ideas), then this should start to ring alarm bells.

Emily Bell, director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism

As for the broader context of taking ideas and presenting them as new, well, that happens all the time, sometimes knowingly and sometimes accidentally. It is an area where journalism is still thrashing out standards and best practice; there is a sort of arms race of transparency going on in digital news filtering at the moment – who did what first and when. I can’t help feeling that the idea of a plagiarism algorithm is not too far away.

More opinions are in the original post. || Related: Google has trouble differentiating between original and copied work (Plagiarism Today) | Early suspicion about Johann Hari’s plagiarism is “news to me,” says Independent editor (The Drum) || Earlier: Hari blames plagiarism on ignorance, pledges to post audio of all interviews in the future (Poynter) | Columbus Dispatch, Tulaa Weekly editorial cartoonists resign after plagiarism accusations (Poynter) | Association of American Editorial Cartoonists considers professional guidelines after plagiarism cases (Poynter)