The Capital Snub

My colleague Brian Frye launches an eloquent attack on the norm against plagiarism (Jot here). But his real target, I think, is the academic ego, and I wonder whether deflating it doesn’t require stronger, rather than weaker, norms.

Economic systems generate value by creating incentives for people to undertake productive activity. In market economies, we do that by giving firms property rights in what they produce. That ensures that firms that produce what consumers want can insist upon payment, and those payments in turn serve as the means by which consumers reward good behavior and ultimately dictate what the economy should produce.

The system falls apart, however, if the signals consumers send to firms through their purchase decisions don’t get routed properly to those who are best able to respond to them. If consumers want more grapes and less tonic, then grape producers need to get the “produce grapes” signal and tonic producers need to get the “stop producing tonic signal.” If tonic producers get the “produce grapes” signal, then more grapes won’t be produced and the system will fail.

The anti-plagiarism norm is just another approach to achieving proper routing of incentive signals, one that is optimized for the production of ideas in which the academic community engages. Academia creates incentives for scholars to produce work that is useful to the community by rewarding influence, rather than mere fact of making something that others are willing to acquire and read, as the market might do. Scholars who generate ideas that other scholars find useful, in the sense that other scholars see fit to discuss the ideas or build upon them, receive promotions and appointments at the most prestigious institutions.

In order for this system to function, faculty promotion and hiring committees must be able to measure influence. They do that by counting citations–the number of times that other scholars have referred to a particular scholar’s work–and by evaluating placement, meaning the prestige of the journals or academic presses in or with which the scholar publishes work. Influence implies originality; a scholar who uses another work to influence a third party merely serves as a conduit for the influence of the other author. Because editors select texts for publication based on originality, placement measures the promise of influence. The editor’s decision to publish at once signals the editor’s belief that the work should exert influence and helps the work toward that end, by giving the work a prominent display.

The anti-plagiarism norm facilitates the measurement of influence, by making it easier for promotion and hiring committees accurately to count instances in which the work of one scholar has been relied upon by other scholars. It also makes it easier for journal editors to determine what part of a scholar’s work is original and what part not. A scholar who scrupulously cites to the work of others whenever the scholar has relied upon it enables committees evaluating those other scholars to observe that the first scholar has been influenced by them. And a scholar who scrupulously cites to the work of others also enables editors to determine quickly the extent of the scholar’s own original contribution to the field. Eliminating the anti-plagiarism norm would make citation counts and placements less accurate measures of influence.

Which is why plagiarism makes scholars so angry. Every failure to cite causes the metrics upon which committees measure influence to diverge from actual influence, with the result that influence, the very end of scholarship (in the sense that truth in science is measured by acceptance), is not rewarded.

I’m tempted to add here that plagiarism makes academics angry because it’s theft. But plagiarism isn’t theft, because academics don’t own ideas, as Brian rightly points out, and the incentives system academics employ is in any case not a market-based incentives system. Plagiarism is only like theft, and gives rise to anger that is only like the anger aroused by theft, in the sense that plagiarism subverts the academic incentive system in the same way that theft subverts the market’s incentive system. A consequence of theft is that you are deprived of what you deserve, because you worked to produce it, or to generate the money you needed to buy it. And that makes you angry. A consequence of plagiarism is that you are deprived of the promotion or job that you deserve, because you generated sufficient influence to merit the promotion or appointment. And that makes you similarly angry.

So plagiarism is like theft, but still remains its own separate kind of transgression. Indeed, I’d hazard that plagiarism is a more dangerous offense, more likely to elicit a cruel response from its victim, than mere theft, because plagiarism is in the mode of a snub. To snub is to ignore, shun, count out. It inflicts a social wound, in contrast to theft’s harm to property. Social wounds cut deeper.

Although Brian at points acknowledges the limits of the property metaphor, at other points he embraces it. He writes that “academics want to own ideas. Copyright is useless to them, because it can’t protect what they want to own. So they create plagiarism norms that give them what they want, when copyright can’t provide.”

But academics don’t want to own their ideas. Indeed, they give them away for free. They do, however, want credit for them toward promotion and hiring, and perhaps in the eyes of posterity, which is why they decry plagiarism. The anti-plagiarism norm does not erect a property system, but it does facilitate a more accurate accounting of the performance of scholars.

One way to test this incentives account would be to see whether scholars tend to object more to plagiarism in academic work than to plagiarism in media that promotion and hiring committees, or academic peers more generally, do not usually consult.

I suspect that they do. If a high school student plagiarizes my scholarly work for a term paper that only a high school teacher will ever read, I am unlikely to become angry. I might even be flattered that my work has percolated so far. But if a scholar plagiarizes my work in an academic publication, I will be angry. The reason the high schooler gets off is that the value of my influence on him to promotion and hiring committees is zero.

Now, the student’s high school teacher might well object to the student’s plagiarism. But that is consistent with my incentives account. Because the plagiarism undermines the classroom incentives system, even if it does not undermine the academic incentives system. To induce students to do original work, the high school teacher must be able to identify original work, and reward it. Plagiarism undermines the high school teacher’s ability to do that.

The incentives theory also explains why ghostwriting often does not run afoul of the plagiarism norm. The anti-plagiarism norm comes into play only where non-market-based reward systems are concerned. When the only rewards desired or received are through the market, plagiarism is not needed for proper routing of incentives, because the market handles that. So for example the ghostwriting of autobiographies or romance novels raises no hackles because the nominal authors are not going to win any writing awards, or generate any esteem as serious literary figures. These books are written for profit. Nothing more.

But I’m sure that a winner of a Pulitzer or Nobel who relies on ghostwriting would come in for serious censure. Because those awards are about creating incentives for authors to engage in original, influential writing. An author who gets the award despite not having made such contributions takes the award from someone who did make real contributions, and thereby subverts the incentives system.

It’s no use arguing in response that the incentives theory doesn’t fit because a ghostwriter has by definition voluntarily renounced any claim to recognition, and indeed may well be content to create great works without any non-financial incentives whatsoever. Because there must be someone else out there, some other author, who has produced great original work, and who did it in hope of receiving the award. That other author will not get the award because it has gone instead to the undeserving employers of the ghostwriter. So an incentive will still have been lost, routed incorrectly.

I cannot therefore agree with Brian that the differential treatment of ghostwriting suggests that “plagiarism is a crime only when it harms the economic interests of authors, but is fine when it benefits them.” Plagiarism is a crime when rewards are doled out based on influence, but not, as in the case of most ghostwriting, when rewards are doled out only based on consumer demand. In that latter case, the market system is at play, and the goal is to reward those who bring products to market that consumers like best. Unless consumers care how the product is produced, and for most ghostwritten work they don’t, copyright is all that’s needed to ensure that those who bring what consumers want to market get rewarded for doing it.

(Occasionally consumers do partake of the cult of authorship and demand that authors not be ghostwriters, in which case a failure to disclose ghostwriting feels, to the consumer, like fraud. This, I suspect, is the origin of the mistaken notion that the anti-plagiarism norm is really an anti-fraud norm. As Brian rightly points out, plagiarism is actually rarely about protecting the reader as a general matter. It is instead, as I have been arguing here, about ensuring that authors are properly rewarded for influence in those communities, such as academia, in which influence is valued.)

The incentives theory also explains why there is no plagiarism norm in court filings. Lawyers, like academics, do strive to influence others through their work, but lawyers’ targets for influence are judges. And judges make clear enough, to the clients who dole out rewards to lawyers, whether their lawyers are influential, by ruling for or against. You don’t need to count cites here, just wins.

Brian asks: “Can I consent to plagiarism? Or rather, do academic plagiarism norms permit me to consent to plagiarism? If not, why not?” The answer, he points out, is of course no. But I do not fully understand his argument that the reason for this “no” is that the anti-plagiarism norm amounts to “cartel rules.”

Academia is not an idea cartel. Cartels restrict output, and thereby drive up price. But academics don’t restrict the output of their ideas in order to extract a higher price from those who buy them. Academics give their ideas away for free. Scholars don’t agree not to publish papers, for example, until the public, or university administrators, consent to pay more for those ideas.

One might argue that universities use common hiring standards artificially to restrict the number of academics they hire, and that this in turn restricts the supply of ideas, since it is difficult for those not employed in academia to find time to produce and disseminate ideas. But universities do not sell their faculties’ ideas. Students pay for teaching. They don’t pay for research. To the extent that there is a hiring cartel (and I don’t think there is), it profits by rationing teaching, not scholarship, which makes the cartel analogy unsuitable to a discussion of the anti-plagiarism norm.

If what Brian means by cartel rules, however, is only that the anti-plagiarism norm is a rule by which a community structures a system of incentives for its members, then I am in agreement. And this does explain why neither Brian nor anyone else can authorize others to plagiarize his work. While many authors do get angry when the norm is violated, the norm is there ultimately to benefit the community, not any one member thereof. Promotion and hiring committees want not only to know that Brian wrote his article attacking the anti-plagiarism norm, but, even if Brian does not care to receive a reward for it, also to know that whoever plagiarized the article did not write it, and therefore should not receive a reward. Only then can the committee ensure that the incentives that it doles out are not wasted.

I am also unsure why Brian calls the anti-plagiarism norm a “tax imposed on junior scholars.” I take his point that because senior scholars have a larger oeuvre, juniors may spend more time citing seniors than seniors spend citing juniors. But it does not follow that juniors spend more time citing overall than do seniors, unless we assume that seniors have more original ideas than do juniors. Seniors will also spend time citing each other, and juniors and seniors both cite the dead, as Brian observers. Indeed, as Brian also observers, all works stand on the shoulders of a very large group of giants. So large, in fact, that the few living giants upon whom juniors may stand surely constitute a negligible part of the whole. Everyone should be doing a lot of citing. And the anti-plagiarism norm helpfully ensures that they do.

What comes across very clearly in Brian’s article is contempt for academic egotism. In my favorite passage, he writes:

I will be blunt. Scholarship is rarely–if ever–original. At best, it is occasionally pithy enough to be quotable, or thoughtful enough to be worth a citation. Even on those rare occasions when a scholarly work actually introduces a novel idea, scholars do not and should not own those ideas, not even to the limited extent of a right to compel attribution. We should be humble. Scholarship is the gift we provide to each other and the public. More often than not, it is a gift better loved by the giver than the recipient. Attribution is also a gift. We should accept it graciously and thankfully when provided. But we should never demand it, or expect others to demand it on our behalf. After all, good scholars copy, but great scholars steal.

Fair enough. And I tend to agree with Brian’s argument elsewhere in the paper that the anti-plagiarism norm is vague in ways that sometimes lead to gross injustice for well-meaning authors. Oliver Sacks’s essays, The Fallibility of Memory and The Creative Self, speak powerfully to the way copying can often not only be unintentional, but an essential part of the creative process, which goes as well to Brian’s point that “great scholars steal.” Sacks writes:

Webster’s defines “plagiarize” as “to steal and pass off as one’s own the ideas or words of another; use . . . without crediting the source . . . to commit literary theft; present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.” There is a considerable overlap between this definition and that of cryptomnesia, and the essential difference is this: plagiarism, as commonly understood and reprobated, is conscious and intentional, whereas cryptomnesia is neither. Perhaps the term “cryptomnesia” needs to be better known, for though one may speak of “unconscious plagiarism,” the very word “plagiarism” is so morally charged, so suggestive of crime and deceit, that it retains a sting even if it is unconscious.”

Oliver Sacks, The Fallibility of Memory, in The River of Consciousness 101, 108-09 (2017).


What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.

Oliver Sacks, The Creative Self, in The River of Consciousness 129, 142 (2017).

Sacks goes on to reproduce a speech given by Mark Twain at the 70th birthday of Oliver Wendell Homes, father of the Supreme Court Justice, and a well-known physician and poet in his day.

Twain said:

Oliver Wendell Holmes [was] the first great literary man I ever stole any thing from–and that is how I came to write to him and he to me. When my first book was new, a friend of mine said to me, “The dedication is very neat.” Yes, I said, I though it was. My friend said, “I always admired it, even before I saw it in The Innocents Abroad.”

I naturally said, “What do you mean” Where did you ever see it before?”

“Well, I saw it first some years ago as Doctor Holmes’s dedication to his Songs in Many Keys.”

Of course, my first impulse was to pare this man’s remains for burial, but upon reflection I said I would reprieve him for a moment or two and give him a chance to prove his assertion if he could: We stepped into a book-store, and he did prove it. I had really stolen that dedication, almost word for word . . . .

Well, of course, I wrote to Doctor Holmes and told him I hadn’t meant to steal, and he wrote back and said in the kindest way that it was all right and no harm done; and added that he believed we all unconsciously worked over ideas gathered in reading and hearing, imagining that they were original with ourselves.

He stated a truth, and did it in such a pleasant way . . . that I was rather glad I had committed the crime, for the sake of the letter. I afterwards called on him and told him to make perfectly free with any ideas of mine that struck him as being good protoplasm for poetry. He could see by that that there wasn’t anything mean about me; so we got along right from the start.

Oliver Sacks, The Fallibility of Memory, in The River of Consciousness 101, 111-112 (2017).

Moral censure is useful against the intentional plagiarist. But I suspect that in many, many cases, intent is lacking, and what is required is only a good-natured acknowledgement that the author either didn’t read enough before putting pen to paper, or read too much, combined with ex post attribution, to keep the incentives system properly triaged. Brian is right to call out the intemperance and “mob rule” that characterize many plagiarism events.

One hopes, in fact, that technology will make the anti-plagiarism norm obsolete before too long. One can imagine an AI-super-charged version of Turnitin that provides scholars–and in particular promotion and hiring committees–with accurate measures of a scholar’s influence without anyone needing to cite the scholar’s work. The program would comb through the sum total of human intellectual output, identify unique ideas, and trace their influence. We wouldn’t need to acknowledge each other’s work anymore; the computer would keep track of that.

Whether that comes to be or not, I can’t help wondering whether the solution to the problem of big egos that vexes Brian isn’t to have more academic policing, not less. If the system is promoting and rewarding people who don’t deserve their egos because they don’t do original work, that can only be because those people are not doing a good job of attribution themselves, and the system is failing to call them out for it. The problem may not be that they are recycling others’ work, but that they are simply failing to make themselves fully aware of what has come before. The solution is to strengthen the plagiarism-related norm that quality scholarship must reflect deep research.

Not long ago, I had the privilege of chatting with an eminent historian. What struck me was the importance that he placed on reading, and reading deeply, in his chosen subjects. Of course, as a historian, he meant reading not just in secondary sources, but primary sources as well. “How can you write a book about X,” he seemed to say, “if you haven’t dug into the private, unpublished, papers of Y? How can you presume to know everything that’s been thought about this subject before you have done that?” Legal scholars can’t always go that far, but my sense is that often they could go much further than they do.

Legal scholars don’t, because the academic police aren’t on the beat.

But they should be.