innocent plagiarists

Deliberately copying someone else’s ideas, words, or creations without their knowledge and permission, or without acknowledging it with an appropriate citation, was not always a reprehensible act. In the Middle Ages, knowledge was a collective good and copyists were the heroes who allowed the dissemination of knowledge and the arts.

With the invention of the printing press, creative work gradually became a private good. In the 18th century the first copyright laws arose and in the 19th century the rules for footnotes were established.

Still today, artistic education is based on the reproduction of classical works. Works in the public domain (no longer a monopoly of their author) or acceptable copies of them, adorn millions of homes.

There are sectors in which practically all the work is registered and the plagiarists end up paying millions in compensation.

This is the case, in music, of Led Zeppelin, Madonna and the Rolling Stones. Many of the Beatles’ songs contain lyrics and melody from public domain folk songs (such as all you need is love).

In literature, the most famous copycat was William Shakespeare: he shot the plot, characters and language of many of his contemporaries, including Miguel de Cervantes, who in The Quijote makes a parody of plagiarists.

Novelists Stephen Ambrose and Jacob Epstein published many books that are pretty much the same as other authors. They claimed that they “improved” the texts and therefore outsold the original writers.

In graphic design and advertising campaigns there is a lot of piracy of successful creations.

In journalism, plagiarism acquires specific characteristics because it is very easy to detect it. Several Pulitzer prizes have had to be returned because it was discovered that pieces of reports or interviews of others were used to dress up winning pieces.

Famous plagiarists in politics were Benjamin Franklin, who published as his own, in the United States, the ideas of European thinkers, and Martin Luther King, whose university thesis was a carbon copy of another and who adorned his speeches with ideas from little-known writers.

More recently, Senator Joe Biden had to withdraw from the 1988 presidential campaign because he was revealed to be a serial plagiarist, going back to college and throughout his career. Even the speech in which he announced that he was leaving the race is an imitation.

Ridiculously, in a speech Melania Trump reproduced well-known phrases from Michelle Obama.


In the United States when you enroll in a university or military academy or when you are hired as a professor or researcher, you have to sign that you know the rules of intellectual integrity and the penalties for violating them.

The rules include, in addition to plagiarism, making someone else do my work; copying others’ assignments or test answers or allowing someone else to copy you; deliver the same work in more than one course; use notes (accordions) during an exam.

For scientists it is complicated because knowledge is cumulative and they necessarily have to start from previous hypotheses and theories. That is why it is allowed to make general attributions in textbooks, history books and encyclopedias.

In an environment of high work pressure, researchers and professors who want to acquire definitiveness are subject to the aphorism publish or perish (publish or perish). They are asked for more quantity than quality. Prolific work is rewarded, more so than the original. Out of desperation, many resort to unethical practices that can ruin their careers.

The ivermectin scandal is still fresh. One researcher fabricated a study showing it was effective against Covid-19 and that gave others the confidence to do the same. In the end it was concluded that it did not have the therapeutic value that was presumed.

Something similar happens with students, who struggle to maintain a good average at an age when there are many distractions. In the first semesters it is common for teachers to discover that one of their pupils is plagiarizing a text or misquoting it. The penalty is taking a non-credit course in the Writing Center. There they make sure you learn the rules of citation, paraphrasing, quoting, and synthesis.

If after that, he insists on taking advantage of other people’s work, the professor informs the head of department and the disciplinary board. According to the seriousness of the case, the subject is declared failed, registration is suspended for one year or the offender is expelled.

The internet facilitates copy and paste without attribution, but there are very powerful programs that check lexicon, syntax and semantics and compare it with gigantic repositories of texts for each subject.

innocent plagiarists