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Salon debate: What is plagiarism?


The following ran on on Jan. 10, 2012. SMU psychologist Alan Brown provided expertise for this story.

January 10, 2012

By Emma Mustitch

The last weeks of 2011 were littered with debates over the originality of high-profile published work from spy novels to political cartoons — and the supposed failure of prominent artists and creators to cite their source material. In the coming year, we’re likely to see more pitched battles related to plagiarism and copyright infringements — not least the much-buzzed-about appeal of artist Richard Prince.

Cases of alleged plagiarism or copyright infringement are rarely black-and-white. We asked a diverse group of commentators — including journalists, lawyers, psychologists and writers — to answer our questions about what exactly plagiarism is, how accusations of plagiarism should be addressed, and whether it’s possible for artists to copy others’ work unconsciously. Their thoughts are below....

Alan Brown, professor of psychology, Southern Methodist University

We all gather an enormous amount of information each day, and our brain usually “tags” each piece with its source. However, we sometimes remember things that fail to be linked to where we learned them, and we mistake the information for our own.

I suspect that we all suffer from occasional source amnesia, which leads to unconscious plagiarism. This is unintentional, and outside of our conscious awareness. A common experience to which most people can relate is sitting with a group of friends and tossing around ideas — solutions to a political problem, where to go to eat dinner, the best movie line ever. Someone brings up a point that you just said, and looks puzzled when you say “Hey, that was my idea!” They blatantly steal your idea in front of you, but don’t seem to have a clue.

While others are talking, we often just half-listen as we try to think of what we would like to say. During this “half here/half not” period, your brain is still absorbing and storing what was said, but you might not be aware of it.

When most of us copy others unintentionally, there are minimal consequences beyond irritation on the part of the plagiarized individual. However, when a scholar or celebrity does so, this catches people’s attention. George Harrison inadvertently plagiarized a song, Sigmund Freud copied a theory, and Helen Keller stole an entire story that she later published. (This article summarizes some of these cases, briefly, at the beginning and end.)...