The Emotional Fallout of Plagiarism

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I have been thinking about plagiarism for various reasons recently. It’s an issue in the moral order of both my worlds, the academic and the artistic, and probably is in any world in which the generation of original content is the primary output of value.

I am accustomed to thinking about this from perspective of those who have their worked appropriated, the poietic dimension if we’re being semiotic about it. Someone has put skill and time and effort and probably also heartache into producing a piece of writing or music or whatever, only to see someone else come along and use the fruits of their effort in their own work, taking not only the credit, but also often the material rewards that come with it (royalties, promotions).

The emotional response this generates has two dimensions. On one hand there’s the outrage on behalf of the original creator, who is pushed aside and eclipsed by the act of appropriation. To copy without due acknowledgement or permission is to erase the original creator from the work, and thus also to erase them as a person. The Death of the Author might be a useful concept from a critical perspective, but those who create new work continue to feel deeply invested in material that has dominated their waking and sleeping thoughts.

On the other, there’s disapproval of the plagiarist. They are revealed as lazy and dishonest, yet masquerading as someone who does real work. I find it hard to get my head around what they think they are doing: if they think the work is good enough to put their own name to, how can they think it is not wrong to pretend to its creation?

In some cases it may be that they’re not really aware of the creators as intellectually and artistically labouring beings. I think students with poor academic practice are like this: they see books as collections of facts external to people and not as the products of extended intellectual work. The case of Joyce Hatto was great for addressing this when teaching in a conservatoire: all those early-career musicians really felt for the young performers whose work had been passed off as Hatto’s. It helped move bibliography and referencing from ‘dull academic requirements’ to ‘moral principle of giving credit where it’s due’.

In other cases it may be that the plagiarists don’t see the actual creators as valid human beings, and thus somehow this makes their work available for the taking. I am thinking as an example about the way Katherine Johnson’s name was removed from much of her work in NASA until relatively late in her career – not exactly plagiarism, but certainly appropriation of her work. But plagiarism happens in circumstances that don’t involve sexism and/or racism so it’s not only that.

Anyway, it is only recently that I have been thinking about plagiarism more from the aesthesic perspective – from the point of view of reception. The impact on an audience member or a reader when they discover that something they have admired turns out to be the work of someone other than the person who has publicly claimed it.

This also has two dimensions. The disapproval of the plagiarist is in some ways similar to the poietic approach, though it actually cuts deeper. You’re not just judging someone as lazy and dishonest, you’re judging someone you had previously respected. It’s not just disapproval, it’s disillusionment. There’s a strong sense of loss involved, followed by doubt: what else have they been lying about? The negative impact of the discovery is compounded in direct proportion to the amount you had previously celebrated them.

The second dimension is how you feel about yourself as reader/listener; it’s this experience, and how surprised I was about, that sparked me to write this post. As well as the shock, the outrage, the disillusionment at those who had done the passing-off, I felt like I too was diminished by it. I felt stupid – was I a fool for thinking it was even their work in the first place? Has everyone else always known this was not their original work? What else of theirs that I have admired is also not actually their work? And should I have known that too? I also felt a weird kind of shame, like I had somehow been complicit in the fraud by believing in it.

The thing about admiring other people’s work is that you are also admiring them as people and, as such, aspiring to be somewhat like them – if only in the specific dimensions relevant to the work of theirs you admire. Discovering that the work is not in fact, in large part, theirs turns that aspiration immediately sour. And the longer you have held that admiration, the more emotional investment turns out to have been not merely wasted but actively misplaced.

These thoughts don’t really lead to any particular conclusion. Except perhaps to clarify for anyone tempted to take a short-cut to artistic or intellectual productivity by building on someone else’s work that the risks of not giving proper credit go beyond the concrete. You may never be found out, and if you are found out, you probably won’t be sued. You may not even know you’ve been found out; people who feel sullied by being duped usually keep quiet about it. But by destroying trust you may also destroy the pleasure that your primary audience has taken in all of your work. People can forgive a lot, but making them feel bad about themselves takes a lot of getting over.

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