Plagiarism: what is it and what makes it wrong?

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogScience is an advanced collective enterprise. Even the most original researcher inevitably builds on the achievements of other researchers. They deserve credit, and transparency facilitates research and makes it possible to scrutinize the original work. The art of giving due credit to other researchers is therefore part and parcel of scientific practice.

It is a well-known fact, however, that this art isn’t always practiced impeccably. Plagiarism is a growing concern in the research community, not least for editors of scientific journals. The causes of plagiarism may vary: ignorance of the techniques of quotation and their importance, momentary forgetfulness, or an intention to cheat and steal others’ work.

When defining plagiarism, it is tempting to focus on the intentional cases that imply dishonesty. However, from the point of view of the significance that giving due credit has in the collective enterprise of science, it is important to resist that temptation.

A recent article in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy defines plagiarism while avoiding the focus on intentional plagiarism. Gert Helgesson and Stefan Eriksson define plagiarism as:

  • “An instance of someone using someone else’s intellectual product (such as texts, ideas, or results), thereby implying that it is their own.”

Researchers often use others’ intellectual products. It is the latter part of the definition that specifies what makes such a use a case of plagiarism: using someone else’s intellectual product in such a manner that it implies that it is one’s own. This implies that even a well-intended attempt to be honest can be a case of plagiarism. Suppose that a colleague gives you permission to freely use a text he or she created. If you use it in a manner that implies that you created it, you are plagiarizing.

The value of the suggested definition of plagiarism, as I see it, is that it is rigorously adapted to the significance that giving due credit has in science as a collective enterprise. The intention to deceive certainly makes plagiarism more reprehensible, but it is not primarily what makes plagiarism a concern in science.

The authors thus highlight that what makes plagiarism wrong in research is above all that it distorts scientific credit.

Pär Segerdahl

We want to be just - the Ethics Blog

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