When an academic course requires the submission of essays or a dissertation, students are usually warned against plagiarism, or the passing off of other people's work as their own. Plagiarism was always liable to occur but is much more common nowadays, for two reasons. First, assessment by the submission of coursework – essays and so on – now constitutes a much larger part of final grading than formerly it did. In the past, the emphasis was overwhelmingly on unseen examinations. Second, the internet has made material easily accessible for plagiarists, and the mountain of available material makes plagiarism hard to establish by examiners.
There are, however, problems around the idea of plagiarism. Clearly, if you reproduce word for word what someone else has written and pass it off as your own, that would be a clear case of plagiarism. But suppose you take over someone else's ideas and express them in your own words, would that be a case of plagiarism? Or suppose, as I have sometimes done in my essays in the Scottish Review
, you use ideas you have published elsewhere in another context. Is that plagiarism? Can you plagiarise your own work?
Handel certainly did so. Or, if the term 'plagiarise' is inappropriate, we could say that Handel, in common with many composers and writers, 'recycled' his works. Why let a good tune go to waste? But Handel has also been accused of using the works of other composers. For example, he was publicly accused by a fellow composer – Johann Mattheson – of plagiarising his music. The composers were friendly but also nearly killed each other in an opera house duel. The story goes that it was a button on Handel's coat which saved him. Contemporary scholars have a more nuanced interpretation of Handel's borrowings.
Accusations of plagiarism are common in the world of popular music. This is understandable since a great deal of money in royalties may be at stake.
Sometimes my students at the beginning of a first-year course in moral philosophy – far from considering plagiarism – would ask me: Can we use our own ideas? I would reply: Yes, of course, provided you don't mind re-sitting in September. The point here is that the beginner in a subject has got to learn what the basics are. You can't start putting Plato or Mill right before you have an accurate knowledge of what they actually said. If you show a good understanding of what they said, then of course a few points of your own would be a decided plus.
There is a different kind of problem in the world of published articles and academic books. The problem is references. Philosophers from Plato until well into the 20th century did not give many references, sometimes none at all. But from the last quarter of the 20th century, the number of references given in published work of all academic kinds has grown enormously. There are three reasons for this.
First, there is the fear of being accused of plagiarism. Academics have always tended to be a jealous bunch and the advent of the research assessment exercise (RAE) whereby academics and their departments are judged by their success in publishing added an edge to this.
Then there is what is known as the 'citation index'. The more your paper is cited by other papers, the more prestige it has. I suspect, with no evidence, that there is a tacit understanding among academics that if you cite others they will cite you.
The third reason for over-referencing is that it is easy to locate papers similar to your own on the internet. I have been asked to referee papers of around 2,000-3,000 words which have had about 100 references. I question if the authors had read the papers they cited. The fear of being accused of plagiarism, coupled with pressure to publish papers, has led to a mountain of information which is impossible to surmount and in which it is difficult to find gold.
Plagiarism, I said, is an attempt to pass other people's work as your own. Forgery, on the other hand, is the attempt to pass your own work as someone else's.
There can be different contexts for this. The simplest is the forging of someone else's signature. This can be for assorted purposes – for example, to create a false last will and testament or claim a benefit for which you have no entitlement. Much more interesting are the aesthetic questions raised by the arts. There have been examples of paintings which have so closely imitated the style of a great artist that they have been taken to be by that great artist and admired and appreciated as such. But let us suppose that, by means of X-rays and all the scientific devices available to art historians, it emerges that a given painting is not in fact by that great artist but is a forgery. Various things would happen.
A huge amount of money would be knocked off the valuation. Moreover, viewers would begin to look at the painting differently. But why? It is actually the very same painting that they were admiring yesterday. The colours and shapes are just the same. One explanation for the change might be that we think of the painting as the expression of a particular mood or set of historical or cultural circumstances involving the artist. It expresses his/her personality. That is its provenance. But when we know it was a forgery, we think in a different way. Our interest turns away from the painting and its putative provenance and is directed at the forger's personality. We are amazed at how skilful he was, and how unscrupulous.
There is a different situation when a great artist puts his signature on an admired painting for which he has only really provided an outline and left directions for the apprentices in his studio to complete the painting. But 'From the studio of' will not fetch the same price for a painting in the art market as it would if it were attributed solely to the great artist, so there is an obvious temptation for the artist to sign it as all his own work rather than 'From the studio of'.
In science, there have been cases in which the the junior researcher (often a woman) actually made the discovery but the credit, or even the Nobel Prize, goes to the person in charge of the lab (usually a man). It is also worth stressing that, whereas the media like the 'breakthrough' or the brilliant discovery of the magic bullet, most scientific advances take place after painstaking research by a team over a period. Even the great Isaac Newton wrote in a letter of 1676 to fellow scientist Robert Hooke: 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants'.
There is a legal issue which can affect both plagiarism and forgery, and that is copyright law. Copyright in a work arises as soon as a work is expressed in a material form, such as writing or recording – the work does not require to be registered. There are really two aims behind copyright law. The first aim is concerned with literary and musical works, visual art and buildings. The purpose of copyright law in this context is to protect creativity. The second aim is to protect entrepreneurship and to encourage the dissemination of creativity by means of sound recordings, and printed works. Copyright has a fixed duration and is transferable.
One interesting point is that copyright protects only the actual expression of a work but not its basic ideas. Let us imagine a novelist saying: I am writing a novel of ideas – other people's ideas mainly. He/she would not have infringed copyright provided the ideas were stated in different words. Indeed, despite the aspirations of my first year students, the sad truth is that there is not a limitless supply of really original ideas around. Recycling is inevitable. But recycling can be worthwhile in its own way.
As the poet Alexander Pope puts it in his Essay on Criticism
True wit is Nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow