by Gael O’Brien

The consequence of plagiarism is like a time-released capsule imploding at a vulnerable moment in a career.

However, this threat hasn’t been much of a deterrent because smart people have done some remarkably stupid things. Honor codes, threat of job loss, boards imposing financial penalties,  books or articles pulled, degrees revoked, or downward shifts in public opinion haven’t stopped the age-old tendency of all too many to present someone else’s ideas as their own.


When U.S. Senator John Walsh of Montana was accused of plagiarizing a masters thesis, he initially attributed the act partially to post traumatic stress disorder related to military service. He later recanted and quit the race for his seat in the Senate. The Army War College has since rescinded the masters degree.

While it is a perennial problem in theses, dissertations, articles, commencement addresses and campaign speeches, the problem can take on massive proportion affecting a culture as in “Plague of plagiarism tarnishes South Korea’s credibility” reported this month  (affecting businessmen and politicians) or “Another Month, Another German Plagiarism Scandal” (affecting high level government officials). In both countries, a too-common response to the pressure to get highly-valued advanced degrees is using idea theft as a short cut.)

What is particularly revealing about those accused of plagiarism is their defense. Often there is the immediate push back to minimize the accusation as just a mistake in proper citation or attribution. Sometimes though, when unattributed material is pointed out, the author investigates, immediately owns it and indicates how problems will be avoided in the future.  However, most common is the blame-others defense: a co-writera staff member, a consultant , or research assistant.

A novel reaction to a recent plagiarism accusation in a master’s thesis was a U.S. Senator suggesting initially that PTSD was partly to blame, which didn’t deter the Army War College from later rescinding the degree;  that notwithstanding, the default culprit seems to be the ubiquitous staff member or former employee as if somehow a leader thinks it will play that a firewall can be erected between the leader and work done on his or her behalf. It isn’t difficult for a staff to learn how to properly attribute material taken from others if a leader makes clear that is expected.

Not everyone agrees that plagiarism is that big a deal – obviously, that is why the problem persists. Or that the punishment is meaningful. Michael Lewis in a recent episode of Public Radio’s This American Life talked about his reason for plagiarizing a seventh grade book report on Johnny Tremain using the summary on the back book cover. Although the school initially was going to expel him, he was given instead the punishment of writing “I will not plagiarize the work of others” 100 times on the blackboard.

Punishments like that do nothing to explain why it is important and beneficial to learn how to develop and express your own point of view. Nor do they create understanding about why it is dishonest to take a short cut and steal someone’s work to turn in as your own. It is a mistake to assume that just because plagiarism is prohibited in honor codes, policies or fair dealing that everyone understands what it involves or why it is so destructive.

In an increasingly digital world overloaded with content, if people don’t already respect that an individual’s ideas belong to that individual (and require attribution) then whatever they see on the Internet, hear on the radio or watch can seem up for grabs as it fits their needs. If we lose touch with the reality that our ideas – and the words we choose to express them – are part of our identity, part of what makes us who we are, then we also detach from respecting that holds true for everyone else as well. It is through the expression of our ideas that we get noticed, hired, promoted, published or elected to office. And in the process of taking short cuts that gobble up others’ ideas, rationalizing it is a means to an end of a needed credential, we ultimately cut short developing reasons why there is value in hiring us, electing us or reading our work.

The development of thought capital is very hard work and if we are lucky, through it we can find ourselves engaging our IQ, emotional intelligence (EQ) and our spiritual intelligence (SQ) as we seek to understand and interpret. The nature of the challenges business and society face deserve that effort which is yet another reason why leaders need to ensure that in the rush to get things done, the culture isn’t encouraging or condoning short cuts that encourage stealing ideas rather than developing or attributing them properly.

In the long-term, posturing with another’s thought capital is just as impotent as being the disembodied voice of “Oz the Great and Powerful” behind the curtain in the Emerald City. Eventually the curtain gets pulled away.

Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine

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