A Proposed Taxonomy of Plagiarism

Or, what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism

Rick Webb
Rick Webb
Nov 6, 2013 · 5 min read

What with the recent Rand Paul plagiarism scandal, I’d like to propose a new taxonomy of plagiarism. Some plagiarism is worse than others, and the basic definition of plagiarism that most people learned in school is only part of it.

Chris Hayes started off his show today by referencing the Wikipedia definition of plagiarism: “the ‘wrongful appropriation’ and ‘purloining and publication’ of another author’s ‘language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,’ and the representation of them as one’s own original work.” The important point here that most people overlook is the theft of ideas. We all learn in school that plagiarism exists if we wholesale copy and paste other people’s words. But ideas are actually a big part of it.

In the academic world, plagiarism is worrisome in two broad contexts: on the science side of academia, the wholesale theft of another researcher’s data or findings is a grave error. And on the humanities side, the theft of someone’s ideas is the main concern. This is often confusing to us, because when we’re young — in elementary, middle and high school — we’re often given assignments to write about a topic to learn to write and express ideas. It’s understood we may use Encyclopedia Brittanica or Wikipedia as our main source, and that’s okay. Because the exercise is for us to learn to comprehend ideas and explain to them. Thus the main concern is that we’re not copying the words from the article exactly, because then our teacher’s couldn’t tell if we comprehended, OR if we can communicate.

But again, this is not the whole story. Taking someone’s new, profound idea, and passing it off as our own, even if we change all the individual words, is not okay either. And yet, when we talk about plagiarism, we often conflate the two, or give them equal footing.

The worst, of course, is when it’s neither your idea, nor your words. Because using someone else’s words, and being too damn lazy to even re-write it is just dumb. Especially in this day and age when professors, and journalists, have plagiarism software.

As an aside, this software is part of the problem. Every schmuck knows — or should know — to rewrite things. But it is not enough.

With every plagiarism scandal, there is a large amount of debate about just how sinful the crime is, and how much the perpetrator should punished. Part of the challenge, I believe, is due to the fact that we are talking about many different offenses, all as if they are the same. What is needed is an ability to distinguish between various shades of plagiarism, and to be able to easily discuss the differences between them.

A Taxonomy of Plagiarism

So, then, here is a proposed taxonomy of plagiarism.

Special note before we begin: There are three modifiers to any of these types of plagiarism:

First, I propose that for each of the types of plagiarism below, there can also be an grievous version of it: a version where the exact words are also copied verbatim.

Second, I propose that we specify whether plagiarism is written, or oral. There is a long history in oral storytelling of lifting and modifying and reworking, and, right or wrong, the rules are somewhat different. No one can agree on exactly those rules, but everyone seems to agree they are different.

Third, I propose that we add the modifier extreme to any grievous instance over 1,000 words.

So, then, to the types.

Type A Plagiarism, or “I told you about that before” — This is plagiarism where the perpetrator has previously cited the original work or author. For example, if I give a speech where I quote someone, and in several speeches I quoted them by name previously, but failed to this time, then this is Type A plagiarism. It is, I believe, relatively minor, and often an error.

Type B Plagiarism, or “Lazily getting to the point” — This is where one plagiarizes some ideas or concepts, as laid out by someone else, in order to get to a larger point that is your own. That is, yes, you have cribbed someone else’s concepts, but in an explanatory manner of a sub point. For example, if I am trying to make a joke about how the rebel alliance in star wars is sort of like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, and I need to explain to you the rebel alliance, and in doing so I crib the definition on Wikipedia and say something like “the rebel alliance is a faction in the Star Wars universe in opposition to the Galactic Empire, dedicated to the restoration of the ideals of the old republic.” I didn’t exactly quote the Wikipedia page on the Rebel Alliance there, but I definitely lifted their general gist of their definition. This was a bit of plagiarism. If I were to use my own definition I’d have said something like “the antiestablishment good guys in Star Wars who fight against a totalitarian empire that masquerades as democratic.” HOWEVER, my main point and idea here is that the rebel alliance is sort of like Snowden and Greenwald, and that is my own personal new thought. So yes, this is plagiarism, but it is relatively mild.

Type C Plagiarism, or “I I have an idea” — This is the wholesale regurgitating of someone else’s idea as your own. An example would be writing a whole article where you express the central beliefs of existentialism, without calling it as such or mentioning Camus or Sartre. Writing a speech talking about how you have a dream that one day your kids won’t be judged by their race but by their personality. This is obviously pretty bad.

Type D Plagiarism, or “It happened to me” — This, in my view, is the worst, and least defensible version of plagiarism. This is the wholesale lifting of someone else’s personal experience and proffering it as your own. Examples would include Columbia valedictorian Brian Corman, who wholesale lifted a personal story from Patton Oswalt. Not just an idea, but a personal and personal experiences. This, to me, is the worst for a few reasons. Because there is no possible explanation for it other than thievery. And it’s about more than ideas, it’s about our experiences, and our experiences are part of us.

Referring to cases of plagiarism with the new taxonomy:

Rand Paul’s use of Wikipedia’s definition of Gattaca in speeches: Grievous, Oral, Type B Plagiarism. Rand Paul made the offenses in speeches, hence, oral. It was grievous, because he copied the definition from Wikipedia verbatim. It was Type B, because Rand Paul was not giving a speech about Gattaca, he was using the plot of Gattaca to make a larger point about Eugenics.

Biden’s plagiarism of British Politician Neil Kinnock: Oral, Type A Plagiarism.This one is tricky, as the story was a personal anecdote, but the fact remains that it was in spoken speeches, and Biden had referenced the story many times before.

Jayson Blair: Repeated, Extreme, Grieves, Written, Type B, C and D. Ay yi yi.

What do you think?

N.B. I should also say my wife Emma helped me with this, lest she accuse me of plagiarism.

    Rick Webb

    Written by

    Rick Webb

    author, @agencythebook, @mannupbook. writing an ad economics book. reformed angel investor, record label owner, native alaskan. co-founded @barbariangroup.