Fools who thieve ideas

Maybe I’m naive but until fairly recently I thought that only bad people plagiarise. I mean, why would anyone do it? And who would be fool enough to think they can get away with it?However, in the last few years I’ve witnessed a few plagiarism cases that have forced me to recognise that plagiarism is much more common than I thought. And that it’s not just done by really bad, evil people but that most people who plagiarise are people like us. They are my colleagues. Sometimes my friends.

It has happened to me a few times now that long pieces (I mean pages worth) of text written by me or by our team have subsequently landed on my desk under an authorship of someone else. Someone has submitted, for a peer review, under their own name, our work. Word to word. Pages of it.

The first time this happened I could not believe my eyes. It was a full page, lifted verbatim from a piece I had written a year earlier, now presented as the background for a journal manuscript (a manuscript which I was then asked to peer reviewer). Needless to say, it was returned to Editor with a justified rejection. The peer review was blind so I shouldn’t have known who the thieving author was. But the thing is, they’d used not the final published version of my original work but a slightly earlier draft that I had only shared with a few people…. only one whom worked on the topic of this particular manuscript… So by a process of elimination…

Since then, the other experiences have been similar – long pieces of text, lifted, much of it verbatim, non-cited, and presented by someone else as their original work. The most recent was in a fellowship application (so again I do know who the thieving author was as these are reviewed openly with the applicant’s name).

Each of these cases has been shocking and deeply upsetting. But each has also had a contextual feature that has forced me to think that these people’s actions cannot be simply explained by categorising the authors as bad or evil. I have had a good quess of who they are, and so I have been forced to accept that these are not some faceless names – but many are people who I actually know, like, and respect.

So if it’s not as simple as the plagiarising people being bad and evil, what is it? I could not think of another explanation but that these authors must have plagiarised without realising what they were doing. Especially as, in several cases, the plagiarising author had explicitly recommended me as the reviewer, or they were proudly presenting work at a conference that I knew was not theirs but never said who it originated from! I mean, if they’d intentionally plagiarised in a hope of getting away with it then surely they would have been a bit more discrete about it!

At this point, I can hear some of you thinking (and in the past I might have thought so myself): “Well, if it wasn’t intentional, if it was just an ignorant, innocent mistake, then it’s not so bad, is it?” Shrug and forget?

The problem is, plagiarism is stealing. It’s a theft of an idea. It’s claiming to have something that really isn’t yours. It’s dishonest. It’s pretending to be something better than you are (if you’d had that idea, done that work, or written that page you wouldn’t have needed to steal someone else’s stuff!). Even if it’s unintentional, at best it’s lazy (you didn’t care to cite properly, or to learn about plagiarism and citing). Or–dare I say it–stupid (you didn’t understand that you were stealing, or weren’t smart enough to learn proper citation).

None of these are good characteristics in a clinician academic. And so plagiarising harms the repuration of, and respect for, the thieving person, and possibly also for their team, and their organisation. It puts them on other people’s lists of people not to be trusted with materials and ideas.

So, do you know what plagiarism is? And do you actively and conciously guard against being guilty of it?

Plagiarism “The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc, and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft” (The Oxford English Dictionary 2006). I like that bit “literary theft”. Sums it up. If you take something that someone has written, or an idea that they have come up with, you need to be careful. It’s ok (and often good) to see an idea or text, pick it up, and say “hey guys, seen this great idea…?!?”. But you need to add to that “…seen this great idea by [add the original author name]?!?”. That’s often all it takes. As you broadcast that great idea or text, make sure you shine the light on the person who originally created it. Basically, be generous in giving credit! Celebrate other people’s ideas as theirs.

This is captured in the following fuller explanation of plagiarism in health research context: “Plagiarism is the use of others’ published and unpublished ideas or words (or other intellectual property) without attribution or permission, and presenting them as new and original rather than derived from an existing source. The intent and effect of plagiarism is to mislead the reader as to the contributions of the plagiarizer. This applies whether the ideas or words are taken from abstracts, research grant applications, Institutional Review Board applications, or unpublished or published manuscripts in any publication format (print or electronic).” Source:

So what to do to avoid becoming a plagiarising, thieving fool? It’s fairly simple. Most universities provide very clear, free, online guidelines on how to avoid becoming guilty of plagiarism. Read them, and use them. Ask for advice if you are unsure. And always, always, always actively seek to give credit where credit is due.

5 thoughts on “Fools who thieve ideas

  1. :-O
    I must also be in the naive camp as this is truly shocking! I can not imagine that somebody could simply delude themselves into thinking they had written pages of somebody else’s work. But to then forget who they’d stolen it from and suggest you as reviewer seems equally baffling. I have slightly over-the-top safeguards against accidentally plagiarising in my writing but they work and I’ll keep using them throughout my career.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The bit about plagiarising ‘ideas’, not just words, resonates strongly. Recognising the source of unpublished ideas relies deeply on people’s integrity. Most research ideas don’t just appear in dreams, they are the result of a lot of groundwork, reading and thought. It is important that developing clinical researchers learn how to credit the sources and inspiration of ideas as well as words.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a very good point, and something we talked about quite a lot. Eg being mindful to invite people to collaborate on a grant or a paper if they have helped you to shape the ideas that are in it. Would you like to write a guest blog piece on this Kath?


  4. Pingback: Plagiarism: grubby feasting | Clinician Academic

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