Commentary – Heiny: The Fine Art of Plagiarizing


No doubt plagiarizing of one person’s sounds by another started on the day of the first uttered human sound, whether in a cave or in the open. Some call this imitation. Plagerizing of written ideas probably also started by the day after the first writing.

The ingenuity and opportunity for plagiarizing have increased over the years and with the introduction of new materials with which to record and reproduce sounds and images. Many battles have occurred between speakers, writers and their audiences about who should receive credit for originating an idea as well as owning a phrase or image.

No set patterns exist for stealing and claiming ownership of someone else’s ideas. A bold way is simply to copy anything from a few sounds or words to a complete idea without giving credit to the original source. School teachers accept this as common practice by their students in many elementary and high school written reports. “Use the encyclopedia,” they say, but they do not go to that source to confirm that the student used original words and phrases to write the report.

Another common practice is to paraphrase someone’s statement without giving credit for it’s origin, then nudging it further into the copier’s own words and topic. The copier argues that only the published formula is copied, not extended sections of the exact words.

In time, the new manuscript may evolve to the point where the second author and informed reviewers think the original idea and phrases inspired a new statement by the second author.

One professor of education launched his doctoral study using this procedure, then went on to become the most published writer in his field. He offered seminars at professional meetings for years outlining for fledgling writers how they can copy another person’s published article formula to write a new article with different content published under the copier’s name.

Some writers insert “sleepers” into their text. Informed readers find sleepers in most published texts. During preparation for writing, a note taker copies something without citing the original source. This can happen when the note seemed relevant at first, but then for many reasons the note remains incomplete and without citation or a way to recreate the citation. Then, while writing a text, the incomplete note has relevance, so is included in the text without crediting the original author.

A sociologist, while editing printer proofs for a book, discovered a missing footnote citation. The original note and bibliography citation card had disappeared. All conceivable efforts to establish the citation failed. So, the book publisher simply changed the footnote numbers leaving in the uncited idea and leaving out the uncited source. No one challenged that sleeper statement or lack of citation in the next 20 years.

At first, in a new profession or technical field, ideas and what people today call “information” have not yet established a market value. Practitioners join the activity with different backgrounds. What appears as conventional wisdom to people with one background may seem incomprehensible, irrelevant, incomplete, esoteric or exotic to someone from another field. Words and ideas are bantered about without concern for ownership. This condition permits both the fact of common plagiarism as well as the charge of plagiarism against another writer to occur.

To handle the initial ambiguity and anomy, professionals use ideas and metrics from their background as well as use non-technical ideas and words to describe their new focus and activities. Writers struggle in these conditions to maintain established professional standards of their previous field when addressing their new colleagues. Then, structure suddenly emerges with someone claiming ownership and receiving recognition for “leading” this new group, and new standards for ownership of ideas, sounds, and words have arisen without further notice.

The stories of plagiarism are many, and some speakers and writers still do things that give rise to new stories for later telling. Although plagiarism is out of favor in most elite circles now, the stealing of other people’s ideas, sounds and words continues, now more easily through electronic transmission, such as the Internet and wireless computers, and with electronic storage devices.

Please note: I adapted on 07-16-02 the formula of this comment from L. L’Amour (1988). Author’s note: The fine art of rustling. In Lonigan. New York: Bantam Books, 1-2.

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Robert Heiny
Robert W. Heiny, Ph.D. is a retired professor, social scientist, and business partner with previous academic appointments as a public school classroom teacher, senior faculty, or senior research member, and administrator. Appointments included at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Peabody College and the Kennedy Center now of Vanderbilt University; and Brandeis University. Dr. Heiny also served as Director of the Montana Center on Disabilities. His peer reviewed contributions to education include publication in [I]The Encyclopedia of Education [/I](1971), and in professional journals and conferences. He served s an expert reviewer of proposals to USOE, and on a team that wrote plans for 12 state-wide and multistate special education and preschools programs. He currently writes user guides for educators and learners as well as columns for [I]TuxReports[/I].com.