Plagued by Plagiarism

April 13, 2009

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Combating Student Plagiarism: An Academic Librarian's Guide. By Lynn D. Lampert, Chandos, Cambridge, UK, 2008, 208 pages, hardback, £59.00, paperback, £39.00.

Is a new ethics being forged with respect to intellectual property? Lynn Lampert, a reference and informational expert and librarian at California State University, Northridge, examines the problem of plagiarism in its multiple aspects: How does one define the problem? How serious is it? What have librarians and other academics done to create it, and how do they propose to solve it? Lampert describes numerous strategies, including educating students to respect copyright laws, inculcating in them the notion of intellectual property, and leading them to put greater value on their own ideas. I believe that academics would profit from taking a look at Lampert's book and comparing and contrasting the strategies she suggests with what goes on in their own departments.

The problem predates the digital age, which---with its advanced information technology and copying facilities---has exacerbated it ten thousand-fold. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a student who had a paper to turn in for Ethics 101 could (but as far as I know rarely did) call a certain phone number and specify the subject, the length of the paper, and whether the desired grade was an A, B, or C. The paper would arrive in good time, neatly typed, and the student would then copy it in ink in his/her handwriting. (Somehow, I was able to avoid courses that required term papers.)

Different ages and cultures (today's youth culture included) have dealt with the problem differently, sometimes to the point of not recognizing plagiarism as a problem. Autre temps autre moeurs. Different mentalities, different values.

Thinking beyond academics and the issues laid out in Lampert's book, the first thing I did after reading it was to consult a popular search engine, that delightfully efficient stepping stone to plagiarism. Searching the Web has become a knee-jerk reaction for almost everyone who uses it. Reading some of the primary listings and following some of the links, I found that I had opened a can of worms, a Pandora's Box*, a hornet's nest. Here, briefly, and listed in no particular order, are some of the discussion topics built into that nest:

Permissions, copyrights, intellectual property, data bases, lawsuits, royalties, infringements, copying, cheating, fees, patent law, guilt, soft deterrents, anti-plagiarist software, contracts, rights, detection beating, credits, forgery (e.g., of works of art or historical documents), prominent people charged with, unacknowledged theft of scientific ideas, public domain, college expulsions, fraud, erroneous or incomplete attributions, money, fame, inadvertent copying, cultural attitudes.

What is plagiarism and what is not? Did Moses and his followers get royalties for the Old Testament? No. But Oxford University Press has supported many an author from the proceeds of its monopoly on Bible translations. Shakespeare copied his plots, or was it Bacon, as some have conjectured, who did the copying? If the Web reproduces an engraving of Dürer, should it pay a fee to a museum that happens to own one of several copies? Do I have to cite Francis S. Key when I quote from "The Star Spangled Banner"? What does the law say when the Fat Lady sings it on YouTube?

Was Cyrano de Bergerac abetting plagiarism when he put beautiful words of love into Christian's mouth? Are we abetting plagiarism or are we complicit when we make databases and search engines of all sorts? Of course we are. There is hardly a tool in the world that can't be misused. A hammer drives in nails and helps to build a house, but someone can use a hammer to smash another person on the head. Anton Chekhov stated that a shotgun introduced in a story has to go off before the end of the story. And any compilation or treatment of information can be compared to a loaded shotgun waiting for potential misuses.

Come now to publication in mathematics. A history of plagiarism in the field of mathematics should point out that mathematical invention or (discovery) relies on knowledge and inspiration from past works. Nothing springs forth entirely from a creator's brilliantly inspired but isolated brain. Any such material, unlinked to the mathematical past, would be unintelligible at the very least and mad at the worst. As the cliché has it: We all stand on the shoulders of giants, or as mathematician Tom Lehrer put it years ago in words† that are often misinterpreted:

Let no one else's work evade your eyes.

At times in the history of mathematics, vanity has kept or tried to keep advances secret. Think of the quarrel between Tartaglia and Cardano; Ivor Grattan-Guinness gives an abridged version of the flap in The Norton History of the Mathematical Sciences:

"The cubic [equation] was solved by Scipio del Ferro, around 1500 at Bologna, and then by Niccolo Tartaglia in 1535; but neither man gave out the details. However, Cardano heard about the success and, after eventually prising the secret out of Tartaglia, he published the method in his Ars Magna [in] 1545. . . . A tremendous dispute then ensued."

And the question of whether Leibnitz was inspired by Newton's fluxions, which Newton said he had kept the lid on, led to a tremendous, still unresolved controversy. At other times, particularly in recent years, the exigencies of warfare or of commercial competition have kept the lid on certain advances.

In technical papers and books, earlier work is very often credited, yet ascriptions are occasionally wrong. The presentation of absolutely full documentation and credit for every single theorematic statement would take us back to Thales of Miletus, if not earlier, and readers would be bored out of their skin. However, on the whole, regarding its 4000 years of written history, mathematics has been a fairly open enterprise.

Information technology now enters the stage, and the situation is altered somewhat. Software, for example, can be proprietary. But if such software incorporates John Doe's method or algorithm, can Doe or his heirs sue for a fraction of the profits? Does it make a difference whether Doe's work was supported by public money?

How have I personally fared vis-à-vis plagiarism? Some years ago, I found that a technical paper of mine had been reprinted word for word under someone else's name. I was furious at the beginning---but what could I do about it? I later calmed down and even wished the transgressor well. Perhaps he became Rector Magnificus of a noble institution and, being a very busy man, has hired a fluent young person to write his speeches. But isn't this what the president of the United States does when he needs a speech?

It is also the case that people have frequently asked for permission to excerpt from, reprint, anthologize, or otherwise disseminate my material, up to and including entire essays, and I have always granted such permission. I would guess that this is the practice of most mathematicians. I have never followed up to see whether proper attribution was made.

A distinguished mathematician wrote to me about his encounter with plagiarism:

"Once, a student submitted startlingly good essays and I managed to find one where he had found it on the Web. I tried talking to him. Useless, so I gave him an F but did not report him for expulsion. Can't help it, I hate to hurt anyone, even a plagiarist."

I also heard from a well-informed authority on scientific publication:

"We can spot plagiarism through the Math Reviews, which covers the entire literature. There are some people who are referred to as ‘serial plagiarists'---they produce a steady stream of papers that are stolen from other authors and submitted to journals around the world. While they are small in number, they are a real nuisance. But occasionally more serious problems arise. Translations and retranslations back to English can cause problems."

In recent times, charges of plagiarism leveled against a number of well-known author/personalities have hit the front pages. The response from the authors when caught with their paragraphs exposed has been largely: "Sorry. Not too serious. Sloppiness on my part. I'll watch it a bit more carefully in the future." Sometimes, solace has been extended to the wronged authors in the form of dollars. For their part, authors who perceive that their works have been stolen, possibly even mutilated, are rightfully upset; abetted by paragraph-sniffing bloodhounds, they increasingly run to the courts seeking remedy.

Now how do I, currently a writer of non-theorematic material (history, philosophy, reviews, fiction, etc.), see the matter? I see both sides of the question. Don't all persons of normal vanity want it both ways? Don't we all want both full access and full protection against unascribed reproduction?

There is at least one more ring in this shameful circus display of vanity, greed, and plain old diminution of common sense: We now have makers and purveyors of software designed to catch not only undergraduates but anyone at all whose writing contains large chunks off the Web. Software giveth and software taketh away.

Returning to the larger question, I think the battle for total control, regulation, and payment is lost. The facilities that the computer has produced, and may produce in the future, run far ahead of the abilities of legislation and law practice---glacial in their time frames, and as ponderous in their application as the broad-backed hippopotamus‡---to monitor and to control. We are moving into a completely new regime with regard to our perception of intellectual property and plagiarism, and of proper monetary compensation. We are moving into a world whose features are by no means clear.

*Story from Greek mythology, recounted by the Greek poet Hesiod (probably 8th century BC).

† From "Lobachevsky."

‡ T.S. Eliot, "The Hippopotamus."

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

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