A quote and some random thoughts on plagarism

During the course of this long volume I have undoubtedly plagiarized from many sources–to use the ugly term that did not bother Shakespeare’s age. I doubt whether any criticism or cultural history has ever been written without such plagiary, which inevitably results from assimilating the contributions of your countless fellow-workers, past and present. The true function of scholarship as a society is not to stake out claims on which others must not trespass, but to provide a community of knowledge in which others may share.

-F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance 1941.

Thanks to academhack for pointing me to this great quote. Given the spirit of the quote I don’t think he’ll mind me reposting it. I find this to be a particularly relevant in light of recent discussion about tracking down self-plagarism and how grave an offense it may be. I’m not saying that self, and regular, plagarism aren’t serious issues. I’ve been involved in reporting a case of self-plagarism myself and it’s disturbing when you see it. It’s also clearly bad for science. It clutters the already crowded literature, has a negative influence on broader perceptions regarding the ethics of scientists, and results in undue credit (which presumably influences funding and promotion). That said, I think it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. We are, after all, in the business of ideas. Words are important for communicating those ideas, but the ideas themselves are the currency of interest. Our ideas are influenced by everyone we talk to, colored by every paper we’ve ever read and talk we’ve ever seen. The goal of science is (or at least should be) to progress our knowledge as rapidly as possible. I think that conversations surrounding plagarism, and what it means in this new era, should start from this core goal and proceed from there.

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