Virtual and Egregious Plagiarism


Avoiding plagiarism has been on my mind since I took up quasi serious writing ten or fifteen years ago---instructions for patients and letters to attorneys hadn’t raised the question.  Perhaps virtual plagiarism can be either subconscious or retroactive.  How many of our creative processes are unique to ourselves? Socrates learned and taught by asking questions.

An example of subconscious plagiarism: during a scientific bull session with my oldest grandson, Nathaniel Brown, after he decided to major in biochemistry in college (he now has an MD and PhD). The topic was how the complicated biochemistry of lactose came about---too much integrated complexity to have evolved coincidentally. Lactose only exists in mammal’s milk glands and requires a complex of enzymes for its production and digestion.  Duck billed platypuses are mammals, so primitive that they lay eggs---and even they have lactose in their milk   Nathaniel must have suggested that the evolutionary benefit of lactose could be to make weaning easier (lactose is scarcely sweet) resulting in more healthy offspring for all mammalian mothers because he remembers that part of the conversation.  Meanwhile I also forgot how who came by this idea and the corollary idea that it would actually improve mammalian nutrition by reducing the tendency to a sweet tooth in all mammalian young after weaning.

This calls to mind how inadvertently plagiarism could happen.  I wouldn’t have been aware of the source of my “inspiration” except for continuing friendly conversations of this type with Nathaniel through the years.  Consider a reviewer of scientific papers remembering something new from a paper that, for any reason, was not published and innocently(?) thinking, on recalling the idea much later, that it had been his own idea.  Would appropriating the idea be plagiarism?  If so, virtual, retroactive, or phantom?

A few years ago I innocently described a chapter from Daniel Boorstin’s book The Discoverers entitled Why the Chinese Didn’t Discover the Rest of the World, later failing to find such a chapter in his book, but the book’s content would have justified the title.  If this were any kind of plagiarism at all, it would almost have to remain unpunished.

A more cogent example of retroactive plagiarism might be Rosalind Franklin‘s failure to receive a share of the Nobel prize with Watson and Crick.  After all, her definitive X-ray diffraction patterns of the spiral structure of DNA were the essence of the discovery.

Are we are willing to expand the usual meaning of plagiarism, copying the exact words of an author without attribution?  Here is a related sin that is even more reprehensible but, so far, much less likely to be punished---selectively taking the author’s words out of context and with crucial omissions, but definitively attributing the quote, thus creating a rebuttal of the author’s most precious thesis.  This egregious behavior could be more readily suppressed if the usual remedies for blatant plagiarism could henceforth be promptly and vigorously applied to it. This essay, which started out a bit frivolous and whimsical has become deadly serious.  Spread the word that plagiarism has become an occasionally deadly sin.

Bottom line: there is no good substitute for a strong bias towards trust in most human relationships.  When Quakers reach a “sense of the meeting” (in other words: consensus) do many of them think that the crucial insight was initially theirs as an individual?  Fortunately, this hasn’t been much of a problem for Quakers---they are worthy of emulation in many ways---same for Socrates.  You might contend that cognitive behavior therapy was retroactive plagiarism of Socrates.

John A. Frantz, MD, NASW

February 1, 2013