Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is Plagiarism Becoming Obsolete?

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German defense minister, has been accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis; he denies any misdeeds, but has at least temporarily stopped using his doctoral title. I am reminded of earlier scandals involving plagiarism by prominent figures, most notably the discovery that large parts of Martin Luther King's doctoral thesis were copied from an earlier thesis by another student.

The reason why such things happen is, I think, pretty clear. Academic credentials are useful not only to academics but, for the status they bring, to lots of other people as well. To those other people—and, I suspect, to many academics—the requirements for getting those credentials are seen as obstacles not opportunities, a set of arbitrary hoops they are expected to jump through. There is a natural temptation to walk around the hoops and hope nobody is watching.

This may be an issue of vanishing importance, given the existence of the internet and search engines. The better our tools are for discovering plagiarism, the less the temptation to commit it. And in the limiting case—a world where anyone reading a (digital) document can in a few seconds check to see where every part of it came from—the norms that define plagiarism may gradually fade away. Nobody, after all, considers it plagiarism if someone quotes a well known line— "to be or not to be," "there's something rotten in the state of Denmark," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," without bothering to attribute it.

With sufficiently good tools, every line is well known, and attributions become unnecessary.


Mark Stout said...

My thoughts on this aren't well formed, but I think the potential for plagiarism exists when the identity of the original source isn't self-evident. Cliches are self-evident and footnotes are too. So, any tool would have to not only make the original source known, but make it visibly obvious that there IS an original source. (Otherwise, how would a reader know to ask the question?) This would have to be a push system, not a pull system.

trebots said...

Why plagiarise when there are doctorate ghostwriters?

Kid said...

When you can produce or popularize something good, you deserve the credentials.

Whether you did so largely by imitating successful others, or recognizing the potential in work of neglected geniuses, or by a sudden creative insight after a long day of buddhist meditation, or by working very hard and putting in many hours...

What difference does it make?

Anonymous said...

@Kid: the defence minister didn't popularize anything. Public officials also get flak from buying degrees from diploma mills.

There's a signal about the kind of dedication and honesty the same people put into their day to day jobs... and if someone later accuses them of corruption with some circumstantial evidence, it won't look good.

Kid said...

The idea of preferring a politician based on his status strikes me as not very useful anyway. So a politician having more status than he really deserves does not mean as much to me as it perhaps should.

What I can recognize, so far as a diploma goes, that with a diploma you want to recognize certain skills, so you may want somebody to solve a problem in a certain way - ie, using the skills you are giving the diploma for.

I don't think that a work composed by imitating others is less value than a work composed by doing everything yourself. However, when you give a diploma for the skill "doing everything yourself", then of course you cannot accept the former.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't you using zu Guttenberg's full name? He's called Herr Doktor Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Wilhelm Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

Are you sure you're not confusing him with Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- n├╝rnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- sh├Ânedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm?

Just wondering.


Jan said...

Maybe I am missing your point. But the real issue is that zu Guttenberg claimed, by explicitly acknowledging the rules set by his university, that every non-attributed sentence of his thesis were his own work, came from his own mind, and were not published by somebody else elsewhere. You may be right, however, that if if were a matter of a few seconds to check every sentence of his thesis, then such an acknowledgement may not be necessary.

I've noticed that in mathematical papers, definitions are often taken verbatim from other people's papers without explicit attribution. That is usually the case when the definition is so well known that no reader who is familiar with the field will assume that the author claims this to be his own definition. I, too, cannot be bothered to actually provide some reference everytime I write down the definition of a Nash equilibrium. So in this case, your predicition has already become reality.

Anonymous said...


Actually, zu Guttenberg chose to renounce the Doktor title and added a few extra names to make up for it. He is now known as Herr Karl Theodor Xerox Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Wilhelm Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg-Googleberg.