Participating today in a very interesting seminar organised by COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) at Woburn House in London, made me reflect on actually why plagiarism is becoming such a ‘problem’, and on ways in which we might create alternative ideas about this.
The first question I wish to raise is whether ‘scientific ideas’ or ‘individual careers’ matter most? As a starting point, let me suggest that actually it should be the ideas that are of most importance. Yet, we always tend to associate ideas with people – hence, we have Nobel prizewinners who are individuals. It is authors’ names that are on articles.
But following my logic, if it is the ideas that are of most importance, then perhaps plagiarism actually becomes less of a ‘problem’. Plagiarism is generally seen as the passing off of someone else’s ideas as being one’s own. So, if we do not attribute ideas to people, but let the ideas in a sense speak for themselves, and make them available for public scrutiny through for example the Web, then the ideas that are deemed to be of most importance might, in a sense, float to the top by popular choice.
This is particularly important right now. In the UK (as in many other countries) governments fund universities – both directly and through research councils. Governments, very literally, pay academics to produce knowledge. So, a case could be made for this knowledge to be ‘published’ under the government’s or research council’s ‘name’. Imagine a world where there were no author(s)’s names on published articles. Journal articles would just be known by their titles and the funding source. Would not this be more open and honest?
What does the individual author’s name matter – other than for their own personal careers? In a world where knowledge has increasingly become a commodity, where individual academic careers depend largely on publication records, where departmental and institutional reputations and thus funding rest on publications and grants, it is of course essential that authors are named. That is why plagiarism is so important an issue. But if we want to fragment this system, if we believe in knowledge as something so much more valuable than a commodity, if we wish to make this freely available – if we want to be a little less selfish about our own careers – then perhaps, there is some value in my proposal.
After all, as one of my former PhD students regularly reminds me, where do our ideas actually come from? We can never cite all of the influences on our writing. I am quite sure that the inspirational lectures that I listened to as an undergraduate in one of the best universities in the world have influenced my subsequent writing. The beggars I met on the street in Bihar have also influenced my ideas. I am ashamed that I do not always cite them as influences on my writing – although I do indeed try to mention them in my acknowledgements. In a sense, almost all of our written work is indeed plagiarised…