Plagiarism #2 — How frequent is plagiarism, why does it happen, and how to spot it

“This is from an independent study that I have faith in. 30% of workers plan to steal from their employers, 30% give in to occasional temptation, 5% will commit fraud regardless of circumstances, 85% will commit fraud given the circumstances.”
“Just out of curiosity, what are the right circumstances?”
“Need, opportunity and the ability to rationalize their behavior, it’s called the fraud triangle.”
Sam and Leo in “The West Wing”

When I did the presentation on plagiarism at work, a comment was made that in an empirical science like psychology (shut up ;-)), plagiarism is not a problem. After all, you want and need to cite other authors and what really matters are the data.

There are two good reasons against it. First, even in an empirical science, you need to make a case for your study, for the data and the way you gathered them. And here plagiarism is citing all sources correctly except the source that gave you the sources and/or the structure on a silver platter. Second, in an empirical science people can plagiarize their own work, but submitting the same study (or parts of it) to multiple journals. That is also plagiarism.

But this just as a side note. The first question I’d like to address is:

How frequent is plagiarism?

Luke and Kearins (2012) refer to a quote by Peter Charles Hoffer (cited in Bartlett and Smallwood, 2004):

“It’s like cockroaches, […] for every one you see on the kitchen floor, there are a hundred behind the stove.”
Peter Charles Hoffer

There are reasons to assume that plagiarism got more frequent. Kock (1999) and Luke and Kearins (2012) both argue that the Internet (e.g., Google) allows easy access to other people’s writings. It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that it makes it easier to plagiarize and to identify plagiarism (Luke & Kearins, 2012).

Why does Plagiarism happen?

But why does plagiarism happen in the first place? I think a quote by Smith (2006) sums it up pretty eloquently:

“Why does research misconduct happen? The answer that researchers love is ‘pressure to publish’, but my preferred answer is ‘Why wouldn’t it happen?’ All human activity is associated with misconduct. Indeed, misconduct may be easier for scientists because the system operates on trust. Plus scientists may have been victims of their own rhetoric: they have fooled themselves that science is a wholly objective enterprise unsullied by the usual human subjectivity and imperfections. It is not. It is a human activity.”
Smith, 2006

I think that especially the reference to the self-serving bias many scientists have about their profession is relevant here. Science is a human enterprise, and like any human endeavor it can attract people who try to play the system — if they have the need, the opportunity and a way to rationalize their behavior. Well, the need is the pressure to deliver results and get a position in science, the opportunity is the lack of control, and as for the rationalization … for general misconduct anything serves from “I need to put bread on the table” to “I know I’m right, I just need the chance to prove it”. For plagiarism … I’ve heard any rationalization from “I help spread a good idea” to “I had the same idea on my own, it’s unfair that who has had the idea first should count”.

Another problem — and an … opportunity — is the way plagiarism is tried to be controlled (control in the sense of “pest control”): By other scientists. As written in the previous posting, this invites the problem that no person can really know whether he or she has not unconsciously plagiarized something. It would require perfect knowledge of the literature, including obscure sources. And it puts controlling plagiarism in the hands of people who frequently have little resources to spare and are not very prone to start a conflict (more on that in a later posting).

But there is another recent development — the amateur who seeks out plagiarism. In Germany, sites like VroniPlag look at dissertation theses of (mostly) politicians with a PhD and identify plagiarism. This “plagiarism control 2.0” is very effective in high-profile cases and has replace the bullet for political assassinations. But I doubt that it is scalable to everyday works. Peer-reviewers have to find plagiarism, which leads us to the next question:

How do you identify plagiarism?

Looking at papers and postings about plagiarism, frequently mentioned stumbling blocks are

  • an unknown word that forces you to look it up via Google, stumbling upon the original source
  • a change in style
  • a deja-vu experience when it comes to the text
  • strange/rare referenced sources

For example, I had a student switching from kindergarten language to an advanced Academic level (change in style) or another student referring to an audiotape source (unlikely that she had access to it or could even use it).

In most cases, Google is your friend. The friend that will one day extort you based on your search history, but still, a friend that can help you here. Just pop in the well written sentences in an otherwise abysmally written article and you will likely find the original sources. Quotation marks can help, but also try it without to identify the cases where the “author” changed parts of the sentence.

Side-note: Anonymous Whistle-Blowers

When it comes to identifying plagiarism, there is the issue of anonymous tips or whistle-blowers. Weber-Wulff gives the case of two possible reactions to it, from treating it seriously and investigating it to the case of an ombudsman reacting with:

“As long as you keep your visor down and prefer to act as an anonymous sniper, you are no one who is acceptable in the world of science and who is morally able to stand above the person accused. I need your name, your address, your workplace and an explanation of the reasons that led you to investigate the dissertation of Ms. D[…]. Until I have that information, I will not undertake anything.”
Reaction of the Ombud for good scientific practice at the TU Dresden, translated by Weber-Wulff

Frequently mentioned reasons for not going after anonymous tips are (e.g., Marcus, & Oransky, 2011, Lab Times, 2011):

  • the accusation is too serious and comes with a high potential damage to the career of the accused
  • even a mere accusation oftentimes does a lot of damage
  • it could be libel/malicious gossip
  • you cannot contact the accuser if you have questions
  • it’s hard to trust anonymous accusations

Good reasons, after all, what you do not want is a witch-hunt. However, there are also good reasons for going after anonymous tips, for example (e.g., Marcus, & Oransky, 2011, Lab Times, 2011):

  • anonymous does not mean ad hominem
    When it comes to plagiarism, the necessary requirement is a prior source. This means that there is written proof, an earlier paper or book. It’s not gossip without any evidence, it’s an accusation that stands or falls with the provided evidence. There should be rules on how you provide this evidence and then this evidence accuses, not a specific person.
  • science works the same way
    Why is it that we accept anonymous peer-reviews judging the quality of the work, but some want a name with an accusation of plagiarism? Accusations and questions should be judged on their merit alone, not by the person standing behind it.
  • self-protection
    The person I (correctly) accuse of plagiarism today might be my peer-reviewer tomorrow (no, even if you plagiarize, it does not automatically disqualify from doing peer-reviews, esp. not if the accusation is kept ‘confidential’). Or how about the (rational) fear that a person whose career goes up in smoke might try to drag others with her — there is an old saying that you should never force a rat into a corner which applies here.

I think that not investigating anonymous accusations is a cheap way out, a way to avoid taking responsibility for the work of ones employees or writers (in case of a journal). Plagiarism is no laughing matter and it always has repercussions for those who should have seen it (e.g., supervisors or peer-reviewers). Personally, I think accusations should be kept confidential and analyzed based on their merit. And like with the normal peer-review, it should not matter who found the flaws in the paper.

Giving the dependencies in the Academic world, students being at the mercy of their teachers, PhD students at the mercy of their supervisors, scientists being at the mercy of their community — it makes sense to allow anonymous tips. Sometimes you need the protection of being free from possible repercussions to make a serious accusation like plagiarism. Like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Because let’s face it, the fate of whistle-blowers, even if done correctly, is often anything but free from repercussions. No matter how strongly organizations like the DFG (German science foundation) stress that whistle-blowers should face no repercussions, in reality, it is hard to image that they will not face them.

So why not take anonymous accusations seriously and go after the provided evidence in a sane way. The usual reactions to plagiarism — which will be the topic of the next posting in this series — frequently are ugly enough.

Referenced Sources

  • Marcus, A., & Oransky, I. (2011, July). Who Are You? Lab Times, 39.
  • Lab Times. (2011). “Smear Campaign…” Lab Times, 1, 3–3.
  • Smith, R. (2006). Research misconduct: the poisoning of the well. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(5), 232–237.
  • Luke, B., & Kearins, K. (2012). Attribution of words versus attribution of responsibilities: Academic plagiarism and university practice. Organization, 19(6), 881–889. doi:10.1177/1350508412448857

Series on plagiarism:


  1. In your survey, you have stated that “30% of workers plan to steal from their employers, 30% give in to occasional temptation, 5% will commit fraud regardless of circumstances, 85% will commit fraud given the circumstances.” – quote taken from first paragraph. How many people were involved in the survey? 30% out of how many people?

  2. Just wondering whether Wagner could be accused of plagiarism for borrowing from Weber’s Preciosa in his Rienci ouverture?

  3. Hmmm, I don’t know much about classical music … might be a homage, might be inspiration, might be plagiarism. Might be all three of them.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Plagiarism #5 — Preventing Plagiarism | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  2. Plagiarism #4 — Consequences of Plagiarism | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  3. Plagiarism #1 – What is Plagiarism? | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  4. Using the Fraud Triangle to Explain Scientific Misconduct | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

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