Crib from one book, it’s plagiarism: crib from twenty, it’s research?

Not much to do with law & religion but…

I keep an occasional eye on the Referrers box on the Site Stats to see which websites are picking up our posts. This week I was surprised to see a referral fromplagiarism

I hadn’t seen that one before; but out of curiosity I visited the site and found that it offers a method of checking a text for plagiarism: you paste in the text and the system crawls the web to see if it can find any matches. So, presumably, some academic from somewhere had been checking a piece of work to see if the author had been nicking other people’s stuff off the Internet and found that said author had been plagiarising L&RUK. I still don’t know whether to feel annoyed or flattered – but it raises the question in my mind of what, precisely, constitutes plagiarism anyway?

On this site we try incredibly hard to acknowledge our sources, to give due credit to other blogs whenever they alert us to something we would otherwise have missed, not simply to lift text verbatim without a proper citation and/or a hyperlink to the source and, incidentally, not to use photographs that are not in the public domain – and if we fail to do that on every single occasion, I hereby offer our genuine and sincerest apologies.

I also confess to being something of a footnote junkie when writing for hard-copy publication – as anyone who has ever read one of my journal articles will confirm. I was once asked by the editor of a book to which I was contributing a chapter to keep the notes to an absolute bare minimum because the book was aimed at “the general reader” – and it made me feel very insecure indeed. Writing it, I had a fairly constant worry that I might, inadvertently, be passing off the ideas of someone else as my own. But there does come a point – certainly in a blog post and sometimes, even, in a formal article for hard copy – when too many references can simply clutter the text to such an extent as to render it almost unreadable. So, for example, when writing a case-note I try to give paragraph references for the main points and all quotations: but if I gave a paragraph reference for every single use of the judgment the result would be an indigestible mess. My defence on such occasions is that I’ve cited the case, everyone who reads it knows that what I’ve written is a summary and anyone who wants to check my source can usually find it on BAILII.

Much more difficult is citing a case for which there is no formal law report, where my note has often been pieced together from disparate material in the press and on the web. Quite apart from the fact that such a report can have no formal status, the act of writing it raises a question about the extent to which a report cobbled together from half-a-dozen disparate (and often partial) sources is “plagiarism” or “research”.

All that said, however, any researcher (at any rate, in the arts and social sciences) is likely sometimes to find him- or herself relying on memory rather than primary sources. In that situation it is not too difficult to plagiarise someone else’s work simply by misremembering the original source: what you think is your very own bright idea is, in fact, a rehash of something you read twenty years ago.

But intentional, systematic plagiarism is something else; and the question that always comes to my own mind is, “Why would anyone do that?” Not only is there no shame in citing someone else, giving a wide range of references in an article helps reassure the reader that the author knows his or her way round the subject. I am always deeply suspicious of a piece without any citations – it simply makes me wonder if the author has bothered to read anything recently.


PS: For a hilarious take on over-zealous footnoting, see “Nothing New Under the Sun”, in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by the wonderful Anne Fadiman.

2 thoughts on “Crib from one book, it’s plagiarism: crib from twenty, it’s research?

  1. For a concise discussion of the difference between plagiarism and research, you may wish to investigate “Lobachevsky” by Tom Lehrer…

    I am clearly a more cynical person than Frank. I have no trouble understanding systematic plagiarism: laziness or stupidity. If you’ve done the work to a good standard, reference it; anything else is sloppy (especially now there are reference management systems that take all the hard work out of doing so).

    When I see something unreferenced, by immediate reaction is “Yeah, whatever.” Then I go and find something with a bit of backing. Without references, how can I tell whether or not the author was stupid, mad, lazy or drunk? And why on earth would I rely on something if I don’t know where it comes from?

    It gives me the jitters just thinking about it…

    • I did toy with the idea of mentioning Nikolai Ivanovitch Lobachevsky but desisted. I’m sure I’m just as cynical as you are, Jen (thirty-six years around the House of Commons and how could I not be?) but I still fail to understand the mindset of people who plagiarise stuff as a matter of course. I suppose, as much as anything, it simply suggests to me a total lack of self-respect in the person who does it.


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