Plagiarism Is Theft of IP, and It Is Unethical in All Forms Period

I typically dislike getting into a fray, but a tweet this morning struck a nerve. I write the following entry not to start a throw down, but to defend intellectual property rights.

I was disheartened to read my Twitter feed this morning, in which @NatureNews (yes, Nature!) promoted one of its columns in which the author applies ethical relativism to plagiarism. He claims “not all plagiarism requires a retraction.” I respectfully disagree. The author divides plagiarism into three types of theft: ideas, results, and words. He argues vociferously against the theft of those areas in his wheelhouse, ideas and results, and thinks those thefts of intellectual property should be prosecuted to the fullest. He discounts the theft of writing, since apparently it is not something he “values”:

“Such plagiarism is unethical and it is a form of misconduct, but scientists are not writers. We value the originality of ideas more than of language. There are worse offences than text plagiarism — such as taking credit for someone else’s research ideas and lifting their results. These are harder to detect than copy-and-pasted text, so receive less attention. This should change. To help, academic journals could, for instance, change the ways in which they police and deal with such cases.”

Writing is a skill that enables the clear communication of ideas and results and facilitates the dissemination of knowledge and the development of science, among other things. It is essential, and it is valuable, and there are plenty of top scientists who are also superb writers. E. O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life was a major inspiration for me to become a wildlife biologist. Without his writing skill, I may never have become aware of his amazing, paradigm-shifting work in the field of biology, his science. To say that writing is not intellectual property to be valued in the same way “ideas” and “results” is to undermine the very way in which “ideas” and “results” live and perpetuate science, and it discounts the work of some of the best scientists in history who were also gifted writers.

Further, science is about the ability to synthesize information to create new ideas. Simple regurgitation and narration of past findings holds no value in the movement of science forward. Plagiarism of language is regurgitation used in narration, a mark of the lack of synthesis and original thought. Detection of plagiarism in documents such as research reports and grant proposals are clear indications that the writer is regurgitating, not synthesizing. What is the value of the research being reported or proposed in this case? Likely very little.

There are countless reasons why the theft of any intellectual property is wrong without caveat. It is theft, after all. Distinguishing between types of theft serves little purpose. And might I point out that people rarely steal that which they do not, in some way, value. To argue that language is of lesser value, and therefore its theft should be punished less than that of ideas and results is fallacious. If it is of little or no value to you, then don’t steal it.