The Accidental Plagiarist

When confronted with proof of their plagiarism, plagiarists tend to resort to a handful of tired excuses. “I forgot the  citation,” is always popular, but isn’t all that convincing when talking about several paragraphs, or even pages, of verbatim text. “It was an accident” is another—which, again, if the offense is sufficiently severe, can be laughable.

But is it possible to plagiarize without meaning to? Joel Marks, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven, thinks so. In an article for the current edition of Philosophy Now, he tells how he discovered, to his chagrin, a strong similarity between a science-fiction story he had written and one that he may (or may not) have read. Marks writes:

… even though my unconscious act was not itself morally wrong, it could  count as plagiarism. This would depend on whether the concept of plagiarism incorporates conscious intention; it seems to be the legal consensus, at any rate, that it need not, so ‘unconscious plagiarism’ is not an oxymoron.

In a 2007 essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review, Erik Campbell writes about discovering that a poem he’d submitted to several journals was extremely similar to one by another poet whose book he owned. “I was too shocked to try to will myself dead,” he writes after happening across the other poem. Fortunately, Campbell’s poem was rejected.

This kind of plagiarism—if that’s even the right word—is a different beast entirely from the cut-and-paste variety. Copying is obviously wrong. But where, exactly, is the line between being influenced by a writer and ripping him or her off?

(Note: I intentionally stole the title for this post—”The Accidental Plagiarist”—from Campbell’s essay.)

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