can be analysed as struggle between perpetrators and opponents.
The main tactics of weak perpetrators, such as students, are
hiding their plagiarism and trying to explain it away. Powerful
perpetrators can deploy more types of tactics, including disparaging
the target, using official channels that give an illusion of
justice, and making threats. Two case studies involving allegations
of plagiarism are used to illustrate tactics used.
Most writing about plagiarism is
about describing it, exposing it, deploring it, understanding
it, proposing ways to deal with it and assessing its consequences
(see, for example, Anderson, 1998; Harris, 2001; Howard, 1999;
Mallon, 1989; Sutherland-Smith, 2008). Here I look at plagiarism
from a different perspective: as a struggle between contending
parties. This struggle is in part about hiding or detecting
plagiarism but more widely is about responses to it. In other
words, it is a struggle over what people will think and do about
It is useful to look at different scenarios. Three configurations
capture much of the dynamics.
||A weak perpetrator versus a powerful accuser.
This is the typical pattern when a high school or undergraduate
student is accused of plagiarism by a teacher.
|| A powerful perpetrator versus a weak accuser. An example
is a student accusing a teacher of passing off the student’s
essay as the teacher’s own work. Another example is
when the perpetrator is in a position of authority, such
as being head of an organisation.
|| A perpetrator versus an accuser of roughly equal power.
An example is one academic plagiarising from another.
For selected scenarios, I outline
key tactics by the contending parties. In making this analysis,
I set aside the usual question about what should be done about
plagiarism. Instead, my focus is on what people can do and actually
do. (A different angle on plagiarism tactics is given by Saltmarsh
(2004), who treats plagiarism itself as a tactic used by students
to succeed in the education system.)
As an initial framework, I look for
evidence of the five methods commonly used by powerful perpetrators
of perceived injustice that inhibit outrage:
• cover up the action
• devalue the target
• reinterpret the events, including by lying, minimising
consequences, blaming others and framing the events
• use official channels to give an appearance of justice
• intimidate and bribe targets and witnesses.
These methods are used in a wide range of injustices, including
censorship, bullying, sexual harassment, unfair dismissals,
torture, massacres, wars and genocide (Martin, 2007). Therefore
it is plausible to expect the same sorts of methods to be found
in plagiarism struggles.
In the next section I give an overview of plagiarism types and
terms before turning to tactics. I look in turn at the cases
of weak and powerful perpetrators, noting tactics that reduce
or increase outrage. After commenting on the difficulties of
collecting evidence about plagiarism cases, I give two examples
of powerful alleged perpetrators, Australian academics Kim Walker
and David Robinson. Then I turn to a different sort of unfairness,
false allegations and excessive penalties, describing methods
of attack. In the conclusion I summarise the advantages of focusing
on tactics rather than morality.
Whenever I use the word “plagiarism”
I mean “alleged plagiarism”; similarly, “perpetrator”
means “alleged perpetrator.” My purpose is to analyse
tactics, not to pass judgements on claims. Plagiarism disputes
commonly involve struggles over the use of the label “plagiarism”
or “plagiariser.” Widely used labels are the outcomes
of struggles. If the issue is not resolved, the label is contested,
and sometimes I add “alleged” to emphasise this.
What is Plagiarism?
Plagiarism, defined broadly, is presenting other people’s
ideas as one’s own. The easiest type to detect and verify
is word-for-word plagiarism, when a person uses someone else’s
exact words — phrases, sentences, paragraphs or entire
works — without adequate acknowledgement. Much less easy
to judge is plagiarism of ideas, when a person expresses someone
else’s ideas in a completely different form.
In western countries, plagiarism is widely perceived to be
something wrong, even sinful — a form of cheating. Plagiarism
itself is seen as unfair, as trying to obtain something —
credit for work — that is undeserved.
But the stigma of plagiarism applies in only some circumstances,
such as a student doing an assignment. In other circumstances
— for example a celebrity authoring a book written by
a ghostwriter — the word plagiarism is not normally used
to describe behaviour that fits the definition. This is what
I call institutionalised plagiarism (Martin, 1994), in which
a powerful person takes credit for the work of subordinates.
Other examples are politicians giving speeches written by speechwriters
(Schlesinger, 2008), government officials releasing reports
written by subordinates, and supervisors co-authoring papers
when the research student did most or all of the work (Martin,
1986; Witton, 1973). Institutionalised plagiarism usually escapes
opprobrium by being invisible or by reframing, as described
below. What is usually thought of as plagiarism, I term competitive
plagiarism. Some terms are given in Table 1.
Table 1. Plagiarism Terminology
Bureaucratic plagiarism is inaccurate attribution
of authorship within bureaucratic organisations (Moodie, 1993,
2006). It is a form of institutionalised plagiarism.
Competitive plagiarism is plagiarism in a situation
in which it is stigmatised (Martin, 1994). Typically the plagiariser
does not seek permission. Common examples are students copying
from published texts and writers copying from other writers.
Cryptomnesia occurs when one is exposed to someone
else’s words or ideas but, forgetting this, mistakenly
believes these words or ideas are one’s own original
thoughts. This is a memory error in attributing the source
of ideas. It is a form of unintentional plagiarism.
Editorial ghostwriting is an editor’s contribution
to a text that is substantial and unacknowledged, for example
writing new sentences and adding new references (Bedeian,
Ghostwriting is writing text for someone else who
takes credit for it. The ghostwriter, also called a ghost,
may be paid for the work or receive some other benefit, such
as the opportunity to have words and ideas reach a wider audience
or serve a worthy cause. Ghostwriting is a form of institutionalised
Gift authorship, also called honorary authorship,
is having one’s name as an author or co-author without
having done an adequate portion of the work (LaFollette, 1992:
91-107). Some gifting is at the initiative of the actual authors.
Institutionalised plagiarism is plagiarism in a
situation in which it is considered normal, legitimate practice
(Martin, 1994). It usually involves organisational superiors
or powerful individuals taking credit for the work of others.
Paraphrasing plagiarism is plagiarism using the
general sequence of text from another source, with some changes
in words and sentence structure. The distinction between word-for-word
and paraphrasing plagiarism involves the degree to which exact
word sequences are used. Paraphrasing plagiarism differs from
normal paraphrasing — considered legitimate —
by prevailing norms about acceptable closeness and acknowledgement.
Patchwriting is Rebecca Moore Howard’s term
for paraphrasing plagiarism. She describes it as “copying
from a source text and then deleting some words, altering
grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another”
(Howard, 1999: xvii).
Plagiarism is using other people’s ideas as
if they are one’s own. This involves two components:
use of the ideas and inadequate acknowledgement. Some authors
add another component: intention.
Plagiarism of secondary sources is listing sources
— typically references to texts — taken from another
source (the secondary source), presenting them as one’s
own sources (Martin, 1984). An example would be using references
listed in another article without looking them up oneself.
Plagiary is a synonym for plagiarism.
Self-plagiarism is presenting one’s own prior
work as if it is new work (Bretag and Carapiet, 2007a, b;
Supervisory ghostwriting involves a supervisor making
substantial unacknowledged contributions to a subordinate’s
work. An example is when a research student’s supervisor
contributes text to a dissertation without specific acknowledgement.
Unintentional plagiarism is plagiarism in which
the author does not mean to deceive, cheat or plagiarise (Sutherland-Smith
2008). It commonly occurs due to ignorance or lack of understanding
of acknowledgement conventions. Cryptomnesia and patchwriting
are forms of unintentional plagiarism.
Word-for-word plagiarism is plagiarism using exact
or near-exact sequences of words from another source.
Other types of plagiarism could be named and indeed may have
been without the labels being taken up widely. My list of terms
includes several I introduced myself (Martin, 1984, 1994), though
others may have used their own terms for the same or related
Because competitive plagiarism is so stigmatised, an allegation
of plagiarism can be highly damaging. Some allegations are wrong,
which is an injustice against the person falsely accused. Another
sort of unfairness occurs when the penalty for plagiarism is
excessive. If the usual penalty in a university for a student’s
copying without acknowledgement is failure on that piece of
work, then expelling a student for the same offence may be perceived
Some cases of plagiarism are clear-cut, but in others the existence
or degree of plagiarism is a matter of judgement and hence dispute.
The appropriate penalty — if any — for plagiarism
is also often debatable. If few cases of plagiarism are ever
detected, it can seem unfair to impose severe penalties on those
unfortunate enough to be caught. As a result, there is a great
scope for differences of opinion and for dissatisfaction among
those involved, both accusers and those accused.
The Case of the Weak Perpetrator
In terms of power, a student who plagiarises is weak in relation
to the teacher. A junior academic who plagiarises is weak in
relation to a prominent scholar. There are rare exceptions to
these examples: the student might be the daughter of an influential
patron of the school. The scenario here is of a perpetrator
who is weak in relation to those who expose the plagiarism and
impose penalties. Foreign students, when writing in a second
language and studying in a culture whose norms are unfamiliar,
often are in a particularly weak position.
The key tactic of the weak perpetrator who intentionally plagiarises
is cover-up: hiding the plagiarism. There are lots of ways to
• find an obscure source and copy it;
• stitch together bits from several sources;
• run some foreign-language text through a translator
and smooth the product;
• have someone else do the original work for you: pay
someone to write your essay;
For dealing with weak perpetrators, the key step is exposure,
namely identifying, documenting and authenticating plagiarism.
This is far easier in word-for-word plagiarism. Sequences of
identical words can be identified, for example through text-matching
software. To demonstrate it is plagiarism, the absence or inadequacy
of acknowledgement must be shown.
For types of plagiarism that do not involve identical wording,
exposure is far more difficult. Suppose a student finds an illuminating
article and skilfully uses the ideas in an essay. A teacher
unfamiliar with the article might suspect plagiarism of ideas
but would have no way of demonstrating it. Even a teacher who
knows the article well might be hard pressed to prove the student
Usually this doesn’t matter. A weak perpetrator may gain
credit for someone else’s ideas, but this will be in a
local context such as a class. In wider circles, for example
in scholarly arenas, paraphrasing others’ work can potentially
generate publications but is not likely to be the basis for
a reputation as an original scholar.
The only other tactic regularly used by weak perpetrators is
interpreting plagiarism as harmless or blameless:
• “I didn’t mean to do it.”
• “It was an accident.”
• “I don’t know how it happened.”
• “I didn’t know it was wrong.”
• “The author said it so much better than I could.”
• “There’s just a little bit.”
• “Mary said it was all right to copy her essay.”
• “I won’t do it again.”
It’s often very difficult to assess such explanations,
especially ones that deny intent or, by implication, suggest
lack of an intention to cheat (“The author said it better.”).
It is one thing to demonstrate copying with inadequate acknowledgement
and another to assess its significance.
Policies defining plagiarism as involving intent make proving
plagiarism difficult, because evidence showing intent can be
hard to obtain. Accused students might be very slow to understand
what plagiarism is or they might be skilled liars.
There are several ways to judge whether someone understands
what they are doing.
Ease of Detection
Sometimes a student will copy someone else’s text and
include the reference, but not put the text in quotation marks.
Since it’s no extra trouble to include the quotes, this
suggests lack of awareness of quotation etiquette. A student
trying to cheat, on the other hand, would not include the reference.
If a student has copied slabs of text from an obvious online
source, even though the teacher announced she regularly uses
text-matching software, this suggests the student doesn’t
understand it is wrong. The more blatant the copying combined
with a reasonable prospect of detection, the less the likelihood
of intentional cheating.
Note that if checks are seldom made or penalties seldom applied,
easy detection does not imply ignorance. Another complication
is the possibility that a sophisticated cheat might plagiarise
blatantly and then, if caught, say they didn’t understand
it was wrong, taking advantage of the assumption that easy detection
If a student repeatedly plagiarises and is repeatedly detected
and warned, this suggests intention to cheat, although it could
be due to persistent failure to understand.
Exercises can be set in class to quote text, paraphrase passages,
acknowledge ideas and the like. This needs to be done before
other assignments in which plagiarism might be a problem.
In summary, when perpetrators are weak, their main options
are hiding their plagiarism and explaining it away, for example
as harmless or due to ignorance. Those with more power —
typically teachers — set out to detect plagiarism and
determine a suitable response. If the plagiarism is unintentional,
then an educative, supportive response is indicated. If it is
intentional, there are several possible responses, including:
• offering better rewards for good practice
• applying penalties for infringements
• designing assessment tasks to minimise opportunities
The Case of the Powerful Perpetrator
A teacher reads a student’s essay and gets an idea, and
then uses the idea in a conversation, a presentation or an article,
without mentioning the student. A supervisor adds his name to
a research paper even though he had nothing to do with the work.
A leading figure in the field reads a grant application and
uses ideas in it as the basis for an article, quickly published.
A politician is listed as the author of a book for which the
research, the first draft and the final editing were done by
assistants, who are thanked in the acknowledgements. These are
examples — some of them common practice — in which
the perpetrators are more powerful than those whose work is
Powerful perpetrators have more options for minimising adverse
consequences. In a large number of cases, they get away with
their plagiarism. When they are challenged, the resulting dynamics
can be complex. To understand such struggles, it’s useful
to list the ways that perpetrators can minimise outrage from
The first tactic is cover-up, just as for weak perpetrators.
In situations in which plagiarism is highly stigmatised —
typically in competitive situations — exposure is very
damaging. So perpetrators seldom advertise what they’ve
In exposing word-for-word plagiarism, it is effective to present
side-by-side comparisons of the copier’s text and the
text copied from, a practice used for decades (e.g., Anonymous,
1959; Pine, 1972; Willey, 1970). Side-by-side comparisons allow
anyone to judge what has been done. Exposure to wide audiences
is more powerful; if decisions are left to official bodies,
the perpetrator has an advantage, as discussed below.
With institutionalised plagiarism, cover-up is slightly different.
In many cases, informed observers know what is going on, but
say nothing. When a politician gives a speech, journalists may
know that speechwriters did most or all of the work but still
report the speech as “the president spoke today”
rather than “the president today read a speech prepared
by Sally Staffer.” The result is a cover-up so far as
many wider audiences are concerned. The institutionalised plagiarism
is subject to a de facto cover-up by not being brought to people’s
Exposing institutionalised plagiarism has two components: showing
that the perpetrator has used someone else’s work without
sufficient acknowledgement and naming it as plagiarism. However,
exposure in this way is seldom enough to cause serious concern
about the practice.
A second method used by powerful perpetrators is devaluing
the target — the person plagiarised. In many situations,
devaluation is implicit in the situation. Bertolt Brecht was
a famous playwright, whereas his lovers were not, so what does
it matter that he put his name to their work? (Fuegi, 1994).
The same sort of question applies to others such as novelist
D. H. Lawrence, who took credit for writing by his lovers (Spender,
1989: 151-160). On a prosaic level, a prestigious academic who
gives a talk has far more status than a student, so colleagues
may think that taking credit for some of the student’s
ideas is not a big deal. Indeed, they may think students are
unable to develop worthwhile ideas or write publishable text
and therefore dismiss student complaints out of hand.
If a complaint is made, the perpetrator and allies may become
more active in devaluing the target, by calling her a poor student,
a complainer, envious, unstable and any number of other derogatory
labels. Typically this is done behind the scenes.
To respond to this imbalance of status, targets need to bolster
their own credibility and find esteemed backers. A student who
has sole-authored publications is less likely to be dismissed
than one who does not. Having someone else as an advocate is
important; the more prestigious the advocate, the less likely
the target is to be dismissed.
A third method used by powerful perpetrators is reinterpretation
— the same as used by weak perpetrators. Plagiarism is
explained away as inadvertent and not serious. It might be blamed
on poor note-taking.
Powerful perpetrators sometimes argue that what they’ve
done isn’t plagiarism. Defenders of ghostwriting —
which can include both ghostwriters and those who employ them
— may say that the practice is acceptable because both
parties agreed to it, and the ghost is paid (Shaw 1991). The
term ghostwriting avoids the word plagiarism and shifts attention
from the plagiariser to the person plagiarised, namely the ghost.
Another defence of ghosting is the claim that everyone knows
what is actually going on, for example that everyone knows that
speeches by politicians or university presidents are written
by their staffers.
Powerful perpetrators can also blame assistants or editors,
for example saying an assistant left off the quotation marks.
Weak perpetrators seldom have assistants.
Blaming assistants highlights a fascinating feature of plagiarism
discourse. In 2004, Charles Ogletree, a Harvard professor, was
exposed for having six paragraphs in his book taken verbatim
from a book by another professor. His explanation: his student
assistants didn’t properly attribute the source and one
of the assistants sent the text to the publisher without his
scrutiny. Ogletree is just one of many Harvard professors who
routinely take credit for the work of their assistants (Russell,
2007). When academics try to explain away competitive plagiarism
— unacknowledged copying from sources — by blaming
assistants, this reveals systematic exploitation of the work
of the assistants who have done much of the research and writing
but appear only in the acknowledgements, not as co-authors.
This is a type of institutionalised plagiarism. That academics
try to blame assistants in this way shows that copying from
a peer — another academic — is seen as bad, whereas
taking credit for the work of a subordinate is not nearly so
bad. In fact, it goes on all the time and is seldom mentioned
until one of the subordinates makes a mistake. (Incidentally,
this example suggests a technique for disgruntled assistants:
plant a few juicy plagiarised passages in the prose written
for your superior.)
How can these justifications for plagiarism be countered? The
usual tools are evidence and persuasive displays. Evidence is
needed that the plagiariser had access to the text, for example
an email showing a draft had been sent. For demonstrating word-for-word
plagiarism, side-by-side comparisons are powerful. For plagiarism
of a sequence of ideas, a side-by-side set of parallels can
For challenging justifications for institutionalised plagiarism,
it is useful to show double standards. “If a student did
this, the result would be a fail.” “If the university
president can use a speechwriter, why aren’t students
allowed equivalent assistance?” “Just because some
people know it’s going on doesn’t mean it’s
A fourth method that often assists powerful perpetrators is
official channels: having the matter dealt with by
superiors, editors, editorial boards, grievance committees,
boards of directors, special committees of inquiry, courts,
or other experts, agencies and formal processes. In principle,
these channels should give a fair hearing, but in practice they
seldom adopt a tough policy towards powerful perpetrators. Therefore,
they may give only an illusion of justice.
Imagine a student who claims a teacher has plagiarised the
ideas in the student’s essay, and who puts in a formal
complaint to the high school principal or the dean at a university.
What chance does such a complaint have? Generally, not much.
Managers in bureaucratic systems usually support the chain of
command, which means supporting staff over students. The main
exception is when the manager wants dirt on the staff member:
then any trumped-up charge will do.
Usually the most that can be expected is the perpetrator being
privately told to be careful. But the one who really needs to
be careful is the student, who might suffer reprisals.
Generally, official channels are most likely to be facades
when they are internal to the organisation, operate in private
and are not accountable for their decisions. A court may be
a somewhat better option because it is independent of the organisation,
but much plagiarism is legal — for example, ideas are
not covered by copyright.
My assessment of official channels may sound cynical. It is
based on observations of the way official channels respond to
a wide range of injustices, such as reprisals against whistleblowers
(Martin, 2003). The implication of this assessment, for those
who want to challenge powerful perpetrators, is not to rely
on official channels. Before pursuing them, it is worthwhile
finding evidence about previous complaints. If there’s
no public evidence — the usual case — then try to
find any previous complainant. For example, has anyone ever
complained to the editors of a journal about plagiarism by an
author and had a good outcome?
The final methods that powerful perpetrators can use to minimise
outrage are intimidation and bribery. A PhD student
who raises concerns about her supervisor claiming credit for
her work is highly vulnerable to reprisals such as a bad reference
or even blocking the granting of the PhD. Targets may not even
raise the matter due to fear of repercussions.
Bribery is the mirror of intimidation. By going along with
the practice of putting the lab head’s name on papers,
a form of institutionalised plagiarism, a junior scientist hopes
to obtain good references, research opportunities, promotions
— and possibly the chance, down the track in a senior
position, of exploiting the work of a later generation of research
students and junior scientists.
Collecting Evidence on Plagiarism
I’ve outlined a set of methods that powerful perpetrators
can use to reduce outrage from their plagiarism of the work
of weak targets. The methods are the same ones used by powerful
perpetrators of all sorts of injustices. I’ve also drawn
on my knowledge of hundreds of plagiarism cases over several
decades of following this issue. However, it is hardly satisfactory
to say “this framework fits the cases I’ve heard
about”: where is the evidence?
In the study of plagiarism, providing evidence is fraught with
difficulties. Lots of stories are circulated. “The department
head went to a conference and gave a talk based on joint work
with Mary — a research student — but presented it
as almost entirely his own work.” If the story is third
hand, it may well be inaccurate. If it is second hand —
you talk to the research student — it’s easier to
judge its validity. Furthermore, you can search for primary
material, such as a copy of the joint paper and a recording
of the department head’s talk. But to be fair, it’s
vital to hear from everyone involved, including the head, who
might have an innocent explanation of the apparent exploitation
of the student’s work. But few plagiarism researchers
are so intrepid as to ask for explanations in unpublicised cases
like this, especially when the head is a major figure in the
field and you work in the department.
When it’s a first-hand account — you are the student
— you may have excellent material. Maybe you raised the
matter with the head and he gave some mealy-mouthed excuse.
But are you going to write about this case while you’re
still a student? As long as you’re in the field and the
head is too — or the head’s allies — there’s
a risk. So it’s one more case that is never properly studied
Informal communications suggest that these sorts of cases are
common, but no one knows exactly how common. Undoubtedly they
are far more frequent than publicised cases, where allegations
become public via media coverage or widely circulated documents.
The result is that much of the commentary on plagiarism is based
on prominent cases, which receive ample publicity, because they
are easier to study. The question then is, are these prominent
cases similar to unpublicised cases?
I won’t try to answer this generally, but only in relation
to methods deployed in plagiarism struggles. My assumption is
that the same sorts of methods tend to be used, but more methods
are likely to be deployed in prominent cases.
If the research student tells only a few others in the department,
who don’t tell anyone else, there is a partial cover-up.
If the department head is never questioned about his behaviour,
he doesn’t need to explain it — no interpretations
are required. No official channels are involved. There’s
no overt intimidation, though the student may be reluctant to
take things further because of the possibility of repercussions.
On the other hand, if the matter is publicised, then the methods
of devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels, intimidation
and bribery may come into play. The upshot is that prominent
cases are more likely to exhibit a rich variety of methods on
both sides of the struggle.
Another factor is collecting evidence about plagiarism. In
principle it sounds easy, at least for word-for-word plagiarism:
just find the source from which the plagiariser copied and compare
the two texts. This is reasonably straightforward when copying
is from an online source and you have an electronic version
of the suspect document, making it possible to use text-matching
software, including search engines such as Google, compare-documents
functions on word processors, and systems such as Turnitin designed
to assist in detecting plagiarism.
The move to digital formats and the development of text-matching
software certainly has made it far easier to detect and show
evidence of plagiarism. Until the early 1990s, teachers who
suspected a student of having plagiarised usually either relied
on their detailed knowledge of relevant texts — especially
assigned readings — or spent lengthy periods in libraries
thumbing through likely sources. Today, it is often possible
to find sources simply by keying suspect passages into Google
or running a document through Turnitin.
It is often said that the Internet makes copying easier but
it also makes detection and gathering of evidence far easier.
As stated in the title of one article, “Plagiarism is
easy, but also easy to detect” (Lyon et al., 2006). For
example, to test for self-plagiarism, it is now possible to
obtain e-versions of an author’s published articles from
databases and run them through Turnitin to see how much text
from a given article was taken word-for-word from the author’s
earlier writings. Without the software, this sort of analysis
would require vastly more effort.
However, text that matches isn’t necessarily plagiarised:
careful study of suspect passages is required before passing
judgement. For example, the convention in quoting a lengthy
passage is to indent the quote and omit quotation marks. In
converting from one e-format to another, it is easy for the
indent to be lost and an incorrect judgement made about the
adequacy of acknowledgement. An investigator into self-plagiarism,
having found matching text in two different articles, has to
check to see whether the author has acknowledged the prior source.
Text-matching software isn’t always the answer. When
sources aren’t available online, detection is far more
difficult. Also difficult to detect are plagiarism of secondary
sources and plagiarism of ideas; these are often dependent on
knowing the field really well. Being the author of the plagiarised
text is an advantage!
Text-matching software makes an enormous difference but, even
with this help, detecting plagiarism is often far more laborious
than writing the original passage, plagiarised or not. Determining
the extent of plagiarism in someone’s body of writing
can be an imposing task. In many cases of alleged plagiarism,
one or two concerned or aggrieved individuals have carried out
the investigative work. Any third party called in to assess
the extent and seriousness of the plagiarism is usually dependent
on the detective work of others. This can be an important limitation
in the study of plagiarism.
Having found an instance of plagiarism in someone’s writing,
often there is a suspicion that other instances exist. On the
other hand, the seriousness of the instance might be overrated
because an equivalent investigation has not been carried out
into the work of peers.
There is one other important factor: defamation. To accuse
someone of plagiarism is defamatory. If the person accused sues
for defamation, the accuser needs a defence. Several defences
are possible, depending on the circumstances.
• Truth. The defendant has to provide evidence
that the allegation of plagiarism is correct.
• Qualified privilege. The defendant is protected
if the allegation was provided as part of a formal relationship,
such as a teacher reporting on a student’s work. Communicating
outside the relationship, such as telling friends at a party
or writing a letter to a newspaper, is not covered by qualified
• Privilege. Statements made in court or read
out in parliament are protected.
It is legally safe to accuse a person directly to their face.
It only becomes defamation when you tell someone else about
Most people do not understand very much about how defamation
law operates, because they never have to deal with it. Therefore,
when someone says “That’s slanderous — I’m
going to sue you” they often become afraid. Fear of defamation
serves to discourage public comment. It reduces the amount of
information about cases.
Weak perpetrators might threaten to sue, but usually this has
little credibility, unless they have a lot of money, because
going to court can be very expensive. Threats from powerful
perpetrators are often more credible and may discourage media
coverage as well as independent investigation.
Threatening a defamation action can be an effective means of
intimidation. Because the legal system puts the burden of proof
on the defendant, this discourages claims that can’t be
easily proved. This is another reason why word-for-word plagiarism
receives disproportionate attention.
I’ve described a number of reasons why evidence about
many plagiarism cases is not readily available and why the cases
for which it is available may not be typical. This is a very
long qualification for the following examples of alleged plagiarism
by powerful figures.
Kim Walker is dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, part
of Sydney University. It is by far the most prestigious music-training
organisation in the state of New South Wales; Sydney University
is one of the top-ranking universities in Australia.
In October 2007, a story in the Sydney Morning Herald
stated that a report written by Walker had passages identical
to text in speeches by former presidents of the University of
Indiana, where Walker previously worked for a decade (Alexander,
In July that year, Walker went on leave for unspecified reasons,
called “special duties.” It later turned out there
was a formal investigation into allegations of plagiarism. Walker
returned to work after ten weeks, but there was no public explanation
offered for her absence.
Much of the public information about this case has been provided
by journalist Harriet Alexander writing for the Sydney Morning
Herald, one of Australia’s most prestigious daily
papers. Some of her stories included side-by-side comparisons
of text. My examination here is based on media reports. I have
not tried to assess the alleged instances of plagiarism. For
the purposes of my analysis, this is a case of a powerful person
accused of plagiarism. My focus is on methods used that reduce
or amplify outrage over the allegations.
Cover-Up and Exposure
The plagiarism allegations were not disclosed by either Walker
or officials at Sydney University. Another example is as follows:
Professor Walker also used material in an article last year
 in Music Forum magazine which was identical
to material in a speech by an academic, Nancy Cantor, at a
conference in 2005.
The article was removed from the Music Council of Australia’s
website in late August . It has since been returned
to the website but with a footnote to the Nancy Cantor speech
that was not there when the Herald first downloaded
an archived version of the article last month [September 2007].”
The reasons for Walker’s leave from the university were
not disclosed; nor, initially, was the investigation into allegations
of plagiarism. “The University of Sydney’s public
relations strategy has been to deprive the affair of oxygen
by refusing to confirm that an investigation took place”
The Sydney Morning Herald sought to obtain the investigation
report through a freedom-of-information request. Sydney University
refused to provide the report, so the matter went to an appeal
body, the Administration Decisions Tribunal. Walker joined the
case against release of the report (Alexander 2008a). The Tribunal
denied access to the report (Alexander, 2008c).
Devaluation and Validation
There is little published information about any attempts to
devalue those who made the plagiarism allegations. Media stories
do suggest a furious battle over Walker’s credibility,
with critics attacking it and supporters praising her contributions
Walker was reported as saying — via her lawyers —
that there was no plagiarism. A few months after the initial
publicity, Walker was reported as having “told the university
she had commissioned an assistant to prepare the reports and
failed to check that the sources had been adequately footnoted”
(Alexander, 2007d). This is an example of explaining away alleged
competitive plagiarism — copying from a peer — by
blaming an assistant, with institutionalised plagiarism implicitly
seen as acceptable. Walker also attributed textual similarities
to clerical errors and computer glitches (Guilliatt, 2008: 27).
On the other hand, Angus McFarland, president of the Students’
Representative Council at Sydney University, said there was
a double standard in the way Walker was treated compared to
students (Alexander, 2007b).
The investigation — an official channel — served
to exonerate Walker without revealing information about allegations,
methods of assessing them or even who was making the judgements.
Walker referred to the report of the investigation as showing
there was no plagiarism and referred to a public statement issued
by Sydney University in December 2007 which said an allegation
regarding “inadvertent but inaccurate references and footnotes
was resolved following the spontaneous and unprompted action
of Professor Walker” (Walker, 2008).
Students critical of the apparent double standard concerning
Walker protested in October 2007: “they arrived at the
Con in a hearse and marched to the entrance dressed as pallbearers
carrying an academic mortarboard wreathed with flowers”
(Guilliat, 2008: 25). Actions like this sidestep official channels.
There is some evidence of threats and actions against those
who have criticised Walker. Associate Professor Peter McCallum,
it is reported, challenged Walker at a Conservatorium staff
meeting after her return to work. “Professor Walker has
since threatened to call on the university to investigate whether
Associate Professor McCallum had breached its code of conduct”
(Alexander, 2007a). Sydney Morning Herald journalist
Harriet Alexander was ordered to leave the staff meeting and
then the building. Journalist Richard Guilliatt, in a feature
story about Walker, reported allegations that she had bullied
subordinates and noted the departure of many staff after her
arrival. Guilliatt quoted a staff member at the Conservatorium
commenting about Walker after she returned to work in September
2007: “She came back really gunning for people …
She made unguarded comments to various senior people that she
was out to get her enemies” (Guilliatt, 2008: 24).
A group of Walker’s supporters — including wealthy
donors to the university — started a fund to cover any
legal costs she might incur should she sue the university. Some
of them wrote letters to senior university officials on her
behalf. “Some of the letters contain implicit threats
about the cost to the university’s finances and reputation
should it not speedily reinstate Professor Walker and apologise
to her” (Alexander, 2008b).
Posters were put throughout the Conservatorium criticising
students who protested. Student president Angus McFarland was
reported as saying that “The students were really spooked”
by this counter-campaigning, which he had never seen in five
years of student activism (Guilliatt, 2008: 25).
Overall, Walker and her allies seem to have used all of the
methods of reducing outrage over alleged plagiarism that I’ve
outlined as possibilities in cases of powerful perpetrators.
On the other hand, Walker’s critics have used a range
of methods to stimulate outrage. The issue of alleged plagiarism
is, in this case, part of a wider struggle over the future of
the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
In 1996, David Robinson became vice-chancellor of Monash University,
one of Australia’s largest and most prestigious universities
— roughly the equivalent of being president of a major
US state university. In 2002, there was a story in the Times
Higher Education Supplement — Britain’s most
prominent venue for news on higher education — that Robinson,
in two books he had written in the 1970s and 1980s, had not
appropriately acknowledged other books from which text was taken
(Baty, 2002). The Times story quickly led to stories
in the Australian press, with calls for Robinson to resign.
The plagiarism had previously been hidden from all but a few
people. Robinson initially came to Australia from Britain as
vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia. Robinson
said he discussed the plagiarism with the chancellor of the
university in 1991, prior to his appointment, but others involved
did not know about it. In his subsequent appointment as Monash
vice-chancellor, it emerged that one member of the selection
committee knew about the allegations but did not tell the other
nine members of the committee (Madden, 2002b).
Robinson said “These matters were dealt with and resolved
more than 20 years ago” and that after his apology, parties
involved had taken no further action. He said these events didn’t
affect his “ability to lead the university” (Madden,
Initially the Monash Council — roughly equivalent to
a US board of trustees — stood by Robinson, giving him
a unanimous vote of confidence, apparently hoping the storm
would blow over. Robinson had been a controversial vice-chancellor
at Monash, lauded by some for dramatically expanding the university’s
operations but detested by others for ruthless cut-backs of
staff in some areas.
Some of Robinson’s critics, enraged by Council’s
defence of him, started investigating his other works. Before
long, a third instance of serious plagiarism, in a 1976 book
by Robinson, was publicised. Robinson apologised for being “hasty
and sloppy” and referred to “pressures to publish.”
He also said that because he had cited the source from which
he copied, he hadn’t intended to hide his use of it (Ketchell
2002a; Madden 2002c). Critics said this sort of excuse wouldn’t
suffice for a student and that failing to penalise Robinson
was a double standard.
This further instance of plagiarism embarrassed the council.
After a meeting with the chancellor Jerry Ellis, Robinson resigned.
At the time, Ellis did not comment about whether he was aware
of yet further additional instances of plagiarism, revealed
in subsequent media stories (Ketchell, 2002b, c; Madden, 2002d;
Maslen, 2002). According to a student representative on Council,
Robinson had earlier told Ellis that only two instances of plagiarism
existed — an assurance contradicted by subsequent revelations
Robinson received a pay-out of about a million dollars, negotiated
with Ellis. The Council was not consulted about the pay-out,
though some critics argued that a full investigation into Robinson’s
plagiarism should have been carried out first.
Let me summarise the tactics involved.
Cover-up and exposure. Two instances of Robinson’s
plagiarism were exposed in the 1980s. However, Robinson told
very few in Australia about this, and those he informed kept
it confidential. The 2002 exposure occurred because former colleagues
of Robinson’s heard he had become a vice-chancellor and
were appalled. The ensuing publicity led to further investigations
into Robinson’s work and further exposures, which led
to his resignation.
Devaluation and validation. There is little public
evidence of Robinson’s critics being disparaged.
Interpretations. Robinson explained his actions as
due to being hasty and sloppy when there were pressures to publish.
He focused on his contributions to Monash. Critics interpreted
the plagiarism as a grave scholarly failure for someone in a
prominent position who should be setting an example.
Official channels. Monash Council initially backed
Robinson. There was no open investigation into the allegations.
Intimidation and resistance. Many academics were afraid
to speak out about what Robinson was doing at Monash due to
possible reprisals, as suggested by a letter to the editor published
after Robinson’s departure: “It is a relief to be
able to write this letter without fear of losing my job”
(Mardling, 2002). Resistance involved some academics investigating
and disclosing new instances of plagiarism and others passing
the information to journalists, with the resulting stories stimulating
others to do the same.
So far I’ve described two configurations in plagiarism
struggles, involving respectively weak and powerful alleged
perpetrators. In tactical terms, the basic difference between
the two is the number of methods available for reducing outrage
over alleged transgressions against good scholarly practice.
Powerful perpetrators can deploy more techniques and can usually
deploy them more effectively. The result is that powerful perpetrators
are less likely to receive serious penalties. On the other hand,
because they are usually higher up the ladder in career terms,
penalties, when applied, might seem harsher. But then, how serious
is losing one’s job as a vice-chancellor compared to being
blocked from entering a research career?
It is a simplification to talk about powerful perpetrators
versus weak targets and vice versa because the resources available
to the players can vary. A weak target, by enlisting allies
such as parents or journalists, sometimes can mount a strong
attack. I have mainly used the words powerful and weak in relation
to the usual power differentials associated with roles such
as teacher and student. The tactics used and the outcome of
struggles are not predetermined by these roles.
What then of intermediate situations, when the perpetrator
has a similar role and roughly equal power to the target? Examples
include one student copying from another and one academic using
another’s ideas without acknowledgement.
Sometimes the perpetrator and target operate as an alliance,
hiding or defending the plagiarism from others. This can be
called cooperative plagiarism. Student copying rings, based
on friendship or payment, operate this way. They can be challenged
by outsiders such as disgruntled students or vigilant teachers;
sometimes they collapse due to internal conflict. Some instances
of ghostwriting are perpetrator-target alliances, such as when
pharmaceutical company employees write scientific articles published
under the name of university scientists.
Cooperative plagiarism sounds nice enough for those involved,
but it can shade into exploitative practices of institutionalised
plagiarism in bureaucracies or, in research teams, supervisors
taking credit for work they had little to do with.
The counterpoint to cooperative plagiarism is competitive plagiarism,
when credit for work done is considered scarce and the plagiariser’s
gain is the target’s uncompensated loss. Examples include
one student obtaining illicit access to another’s work
and one academic plagiarising the work of another. Judging by
a number of individual accounts (e.g., Anonymous, 1990; Bowers,
1997; Leech, 1991), it is very difficult to expose plagiarisers,
suggesting that targets of plagiarism are often in a relatively
weak situation compared to perpetrators.
False Allegations and Excessive Penalties
Plagiarism is commonly seen as unfair and deserving serious
penalties. This creates the basis for a different sort of unfairness:
false allegations of plagiarism. Publicly accusing someone of
plagiarism can be highly damaging to the accused’s reputation.
Even if the claims are definitively refuted, the stain may linger.
Accusations can also be used as a form of attack.
A research student was having trouble with her supervisors
and complained to a senior academic. The supervisors found out
about this. They obtained a copy of her major undergraduate
research report and ran it through some text-matching software.
Based on the findings, they alleged the report was plagiarised
and moved to revoke her degree. Eventually an independent assessor
was called in to examine both the report and the output from
the plagiarism check. The assessor determined that the report
Another injustice is over-zealous enforcement against inadvertent
plagiarism. The most common scenario is a student who is found
to have plagiarised, is accused of cheating and subject to severe
penalties. The easiest way to determine whether this is unfair
is the double standard test: find out how common the behaviour
is and note the usual penalty. If quite a few students are plagiarising
and being given a warning, then failing the course for a similar
transgression seems harsh.
The methods used in struggles involving false allegations and
excessive penalties are a mirror image of the ones used in the
plagiarism struggles described in earlier sections. To briefly
illustrate the methods, I’ll take the case of a powerful
accuser versus a weak target. The typical example is a teacher
imposing excessive penalties for an innocent transgression.
The first method is cover-up of the context. The focus is on
the copied passages. What might be omitted is the amount of
correctly written work, indication from citations that there
was no intent to hide the source, or mistakes in using quotations
that indicate conventions are not properly understood. The way
to counter this is to explain the context.
The second method is denigration of the target with labels
such as plagiariser and cheater. Expressions that validate the
target include learner and “honest mistake.”
The third method of attack is to interpret the behaviour as
inappropriate and deserving of severe censure. Copying is called
cheating. Intent to cheat is attributed to the target. The copying
is treated as a matter of morality and standards, not one of
developing skills in giving acknowledgement. There are several
ways to counter these claims, including denying intent, noting
that copying is a common problem, and arguing that institutionalised
plagiarism is a more serious issue.
In many cases of excessive penalties, official channels are
the mode of attack. Formal procedures are used to give credibility
to claims and to impose penalties. Targets need to defend themselves
through formal processes, but it is unwise to rely on this for
justice. After all, the rules may well be applied correctly;
the problem arises from applying them selectively, namely to
only some students or with disproportionate penalties.
Targets need to use informal, non-official means to contest
the matter. This might mean a discussion with the teacher, or
having a valued ally, such as a parent or senior teacher, meeting
with the teacher or school officials. In some cases, when the
stakes are high, it may be worthwhile being prepared to go public,
for example by developing a webpage or petition. For campaigns
like this, the skills of community organisers are highly relevant.
Finally, allegations of plagiarism operate as a type of intimidation.
They can lead to feelings of humiliation, fear and self-doubt.
The formal penalties, such as expulsion, may be damaging. If
the allegations are known to others, through a formal statement
or gossip, the damage to reputation can be severe. Dealing effectively
with unfair accusations or excessive penalties requires persisting
in the face of this intimidation.
I had hoped to provide a case study illustrating the dynamics
of excessive penalties. However, it is risky to admit you plagiarised,
even if you were subject to unfair treatment. Who wants to be
labelled a plagiariser, even an inadvertent or contrite one,
given prevailing antagonistic attitudes and the common assumption
that plagiarising is cheating? Who wants to admit to being falsely
accused of plagiarism, given that some may think there must
be something in the allegation? The study of tactics involved
in actual cases of false allegations and excessive penalties
remains an under-explored area.
Plagiarism is normally treated as a matter of morals (cheating),
learning or policy. Here I’ve taken a different angle,
focusing on the methods used by players in struggles over plagiarism.
Plagiarism struggles vary quite a bit depending on the circumstances,
but there are some patterns. The most common situation is the
weak perpetrator, typically a student in relation to a teacher
or a junior scholar in relation to a senior one. Weak perpetrators
have few resources aside from hiding their copying from detection
and explaining it as inadvertent or trivial.
Cases involving powerful perpetrators can involve a wider variety
of tactics. If challenged, powerful perpetrators and their allies
can bring to bear a range of techniques to minimise outrage,
including devaluing the target, reinterpreting the actions,
using official channels and using intimidation and bribery.
This array of tools is usually effective unless the accuser
can bring powerful allies on board.
One of the complexities of these struggles is the different
types of plagiarism, such as word-for-word plagiarism and plagiarism
of ideas. Word-for-word plagiarism of someone else’s text
has the feature of being especially easy to demonstrate to others,
including non-specialists. Therefore it is the most common type
subject to censure, even though arguably it is less significant
intellectually. Even powerful perpetrators can sometimes be
brought down by exposure of word-for-word plagiarism.
Institutionalised plagiarism is treated completely differently.
In large organisations such as corporations and government departments,
it is routine for junior workers to write documents and senior
officials to take formal credit. This is seldom labelled plagiarism.
Ghostwriting, one sort of institutionalised plagiarism, is
usually unmentioned or treated as a business transaction. The
misattribution of ideas is not seen as an issue as long as the
ostensible author is powerful, for example a celebrity. For
a high school student to have a ghostwriter for assignments
would be seen as cheating. (This happens too. Often the ghostwriter
is a parent.)
This raises the issue of double standards, which are rife in
common conceptions of plagiarism. Weak perpetrators are stigmatised
as cheats whereas powerful perpetrators are ignored. For those
who want to challenge institutionalised plagiarism, one of the
most effective tools is pointing out the double standards involved.
Yet another complexity in plagiarism struggles arises from
false allegations and excessive penalties. Because plagiarism
is so stigmatised in many contexts, an accusation can be highly
damaging. Because plagiarism is so common, those who are detected
and exposed as plagiarisers may suffer disproportionate penalties.
Powerful perpetrators who are exposed and penalised are unlucky,
in a sense, because so many others like them escape detection
or exposure. On the other hand, it might be said that all but
a few powerful perpetrators get off lightly compared to those
with less power.
Because plagiarism is so often seen as a moral issue, as something
reprehensible, allegations of plagiarism often are accompanied
by powerful emotions. Weak perpetrators can feel they have done
something terrible. This leads to attempts to cover up and reinterpret
what happened. Learning of proper practice is often inhibited
in such circumstances.
The very word plagiarism may be part of the problem. It carries
a potent emotional charge, yet it might be considered simply
a violation of the etiquette of giving acknowledgements. Plagiarism
is thought of as so heinous that when it is inadvertent or trivial
many do not like to use the word.
For those who are involved in plagiarism struggles, attention
to methods used by players has advantages. It takes attention
away from transgression and censure and puts it on actions taken.
This can be helpful for those who feel unfairness is involved,
either from plagiarism or from excessive penalties.
For observers, attention to methods can help in understanding
the course of plagiarism struggles. It is possible to work backwards
from the methods used to make an assessment of the perception
Journalists continue to find plagiarism a juicy story: it represents
a transgression, especially in arenas like universities where
scholarship is associated with truth and purity, which can be
portrayed as a scandal. As long as plagiarism — the competitive
variety — remains highly stigmatised, many perpetrators
will use whatever resources available to escape detection and
minimise repercussions and plagiarism tactics will continue
to be a rich field for investigation.
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