Finding the Positive in Plagiarism
Plagiarists have been stealing credit from legitimate authors since before we had written words, co-opting the compositions of poets and balladeers. But with the advent of the printing press, and later, the internet, the pool of writers and readers expanded exponentially, providing more opportunities for appropriating the work of others.
Now Chatbots have joined the ranks of the lexicological larcenists to profit from stealing our words and thoughts. Will we be ravaged by a plague of plagiarism? Will AI sweep away all the weeping human writers? Can we find anything good about plagiarism?
Authors who slave over a work, only to discover that someone else has received payment or acclaim for lifting their phrases or purloining their ideas, feel violated. We should continue to strengthen the customs and laws to discourage such theft, even if they are unlikely to be completely effective. But if at least some plagiarism is likely to continue, shouldn’t we also find ways to extract something positive from the practice?
Inseparable from being an act of violation, plagiarism is also an act of validation. Someone else felt that your ideas were clever enough, bold enough, or profitable enough, to loot. Rather than mere piffle, your words were worthy of being pilfered. Your work is being recognized, even if you aren’t. Being plagiarized can be viewed as a pathway to immortality.
Learning write from wrong
When I hear “plagiarism” my first association is “stealing”. So I was somewhat surprised while researching this article to see plagiarism almost universally referred to as “cheating”. While many of these articles address plagiarism in the context of AI and education, cheating still seems too weak a description. Cheating highlights the moral deficits of the thief, and detracts from the fact that an author has been robbed of something of value.
We talk of tax cheats, rather than “stealing from the general public”. We use “cheating” to trivialize crimes. Cheating on the bar exam. Cheating on your spouse. Cheating emphasizes that someone took a shortcut, but shortchanges the harm to those cheated on, or stolen from.