The Ethics and Economics of Plagiarism

“When someone verbally quotes to you something that you wrote long ago, and he doesn’t know where it came from, you’ve been successful. Your idea has penetrated other people’s thinking.” ~ Leonard E. Read

I am a writer. I have been a publisher. These days, I give away all these digital materials. (See my site,

Things that I have published or edited on occasion have been plagiarized. In one memorable case, the thief was a famous evangelical Protestant theologian. When my associate, who had written one of the plagiarized essays, mailed verbatim proof that the man had lifted material from two different essays in a journal that I had edited, his assistant wrote back that the author’s nameless research assistant had done it. The theologian himself never put anything in writing to admit what he had done. In the next edition of the paperback version of the book in question, he did provide footnote references. But then, in his Complete Works, which are not complete, he used his older edition. No footnotes.

He had done this more than once in his career. He had lifted a section about ancient Rome from one of R. J. Rushdoony’s books. Rushdoony was not politically correct, so the man avoided citing his source. He had borrowed from many men’s ideas over the years. You cannot discover this from his footnotes.

He was an intellectual leader for a time. Today, it is hard to think of a single idea of his own that anyone would attribute to him. His books no longer sell many copies. He did some good work. He persuaded a lot of people, at least for a while, to take ideas seriously. But he no longer is an influence.


As an author, I say, “So what if he steals bits and pieces of my stuff? After all, my stuff is worth stealing!” I really don’t care. I would not want someone to steal a novel or a short story and sell it to a movie studio. That would cost me money. But my ideas? My vibrant prose? Who cares?

Besides, if I spot the infraction, I get to needle the thief in private. That is always a lot of fun. I may even go public with the evidence. That might be fun, too.

Plagiarism reveals the thief as lazy. He just cannot think for himself. He does not push ideas around in his mind and evaluate them. He just steals.

Is this a moral evil? Yes. It’s right up there with . . . well, I can’t think what it’s up there with. So, I guess it’s more down there than up there. The victim does not lose any money. He gets his idea passed on in its original form without any additions or subtractions. Wasn’t that the whole idea? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.) What’s the problem?

Plagiarism is a lazy person’s sin. Ideas do not mean much to him, so he lifts them from others. Writing style surely means little to him. He probably is not very creative intellectually. He is presumably competent, but he is no giant. What does it matter that he stole a phrase here or there? Economically, this is irrelevant. Morally, it is marginal.


There have been recent cases of such lifting. Academics are generally the main culprits. I learned in grad school that “history may not repeat itself, but historians repeat each other.”

The higher you rise in academia or a field certified by full-time academics, the more you are allowed to plagiarize. Martin Luther King., Jr. was a lifelong plagiarist, but Boston University has long refused to revoke his Ph.D. posthumously. Now best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose has been caught. So has the PBS talk-show chatterbox Dr. Doris Kearns Goodwin. It became public knowledge a decade ago that Civil War historian Stephen Oates was repeatedly accused of this practice. That he wrote a biography of King seems fitting. Oates had a ready answer: everybody does it.

In a lengthy refutation of his accusers, Oates argues persuasively that all Lincoln biographers share the same body of knowledge and tell to repeat one another. In only three instances does he admit taking words from his predecessor, Thomas, without attribution.

“Frankly I had forgotten that Thomas used the words ‘blinding’ and ‘swirls,’ along with ‘choking,'” he explains about a passage describing a blizzard. Also, “I had forgotten,” he writes, Thomas’ description of Lincoln as having “pocketed” a fee. Finally, describing the outbreak of the Black Hawk War, “I had long forgotten Thomas’ adjective ‘flaming,’ when I wrote ‘flamed up.'” Elsewhere in his biography, Oates points out, he did footnote Thomas (though not always accurately).

Oates’ rebuttal is still being investigated by the American Historical Association.

Digital publishing makes it easier to catch plagiarists. Software can discover identical word patterns in seconds. If the plagiarist is unwise or unfortunate enough to have his stolen passage published on the Web, a search for a phrase may produce links to the stolen goods and the original source. Conclusion: “If you don’t cite your sources, don’t site your sources.”

I can think of no established academic figure who has had his or her career destroyed by either the accusation of plagiarism or its proof. Professors retain tenure. They do not find themselves unemployed. Sanctions are not imposed. The closer that a plagiarist is to the institutional power to impose sanctions on beginners for plagiarism, the less likely that he will suffer from the same sanctions. Students can be expelled, and are, for this infraction. Tenured professors who can expel them are generally left alone by their peers for committing the same infraction.


Teachers warn students not to steal other people’s phrases. Is this a greater infraction than when a professor does this?

The thief is trying to palm himself off as better than he is. So is the college professor who does the same thing.

The student has not proven himself competent yet. But what does this kind of competence mean? Does it mean “competent to steal later on,” the way that a tenured professor does the deed?

A student can be expelled. A professor can be fired. But it is far easier to expel a student. It is difficult to fire a tenured professor. So, there is a cost differential. This is not the ethical issue, of course. But, as I shall show, plagiarism is mainly an economic issue.

If a student gets away with plagiarism, he may go on to obtain a position of high authority. What if he really does not know his stuff? But the odds are, he is plagiarizing in a course outside of his major. In his major, it becomes harder to fake competence.

I think the dividing issue is this. A professor in a university is basically harmless. If he steals a few phrases, nobody gets hurt. But a student could conceivably graduate and become someone important: a physician, an industrialist, i.e., someone whose competence really matters. Colleges do not want to release a thief into the upper echelons of society, where he can do real harm. So, college professors place heavier penalties on students who plagiarize than colleagues who plagiarize. They know in their hearts that what they do for a living is not all that important.

Then what about Albert Einstein? He lifted e-mc2 from Olinto de Pretto, an Italian industrialist, who published it in 1903, two years before Einstein published his paper. This revelation was published in a handful of places in 1999, most notably in The Guardian. No major newspapers picked up the story. It has gone down the memory hole. Were it not for the Web, who would know?

Why this informally agreed-upon suppression of the truth by the media? Because Einstein really was important. His views established the modern world. Paul Johnson begins his history of the Twentieth century, Modern Times, with a discussion of Einstein’s theory of the transit of Venus. If the entire academic and scientific world could not discover for over nine decades that Einstein was a plagiarist, this would call into question the competence of the world’s gatekeepers of ideas. So, the story was ignored.

This leads me to my economic theory of plagiarism.


Sanctions against plagiarism are part of a system of academic guild control. As with most guilds, the screening process applies mainly in the in the journeymen phase. Sanctions are a matter of screening. The screening process keeps the supply of future competitors low. This keeps guild members’ incomes high.

The master craftsman, member of the guild, wants to preserve his image as competent. His journeymen’s competence reflects this competence. If he gets deceived by a journeyman, his reputation suffers.

If an academic con man fools everyone in the guild for years on end, then any public admission that he fooled them badly points to the incompetence of his peers. So, big-name practitioners of the art of plagiarism do not get expelled from the guild, not even informally. To do so would be a public admission that “we are easily conned.” This involves calling the guild’s legitimacy into question. This could affect the entire guild’s income, for in almost all cases, the guild is a State-sanctioned, State-regulated cartel. In academia, the control system is accreditation, a form of licensing.

If a businessman steals parts of a speech, no one cares. Why not? Because there is no State-licensed guild whose members derive their income based on the reduction of supply of businessmen. The public does not care if a businessman steals ideas. His customers care only if whatever it is that he sells works as promised. They choose not to impose negative sanctions for plagiarism.

American Presidents employ speech writers. No one cares. If anyone had to listen to Presidents’ very own speeches, he would feel cheated, or perhaps imposed on. Businessmen also employ speech writers. No one worries about this, either. Speech writers get paid to sell their ideas to others. No one gets hurt.

Otto Scott wrote a speech for the CEO of Ashland Oil, “The Silent Majority,” delivered to the Chicago Men’s Club (May 23, 1968). He was paid for his work. Members of the Chicago Men’s Club were not concerned that someone else wrote the man’s speech. They probably would have been amazed if someone else hadn’t. It was a very good speech.

The journalist Jeffrey St. John saw the phrase quoted in a newspaper, and he immediately called Ashland Oil. He asked who the CEO’s speech writer was. The secretary told him. St. John knew as soon as he read the phrase that no CEO had coined it. He wanted to speak with the author. He thought the man would be interesting. He was correct. There are few men more interesting than Otto Scott.

Then what is the problem with plagiarism, ethically speaking? Not much. It is a minor form of deception that makes the thief look a little brighter than he really is, or, more likely, harder working than he really is.

There is an old slogan in academia: “Steal a man’s idea, and it’s plagiarism. Steal ten men’s ideas, and it’s a term paper. Steal a hundred men’s ideas, and it’s original research.” This is not far from the truth. Anyone who goes to the trouble of stealing ideas from a hundred people has to put these ideas together into a coherent whole. This is where his creativity is, not in his reading habits. This is why creative people rarely plagiarize. Their creativity would be undermined by plagiarism.

When I read that someone has plagiarized another man’s words, I immediately think, “uninspiring hack.” I have heard Doris Kearns Goodwin on TV several times. If she should turn out to be a plagiarist, I would not be amazed.


Plagiarism is regarded as an offense within academic guilds. When you cheat a guild system by plagiarizing another person’s work, you deserve punishment. You have kept another rules-abiding person from getting through an occupational barrier. You have prospered at his expense. Someone has been hurt.

For your plagiarism to harm another person, you both must be involved in a zero-sum contest: one person’s gain comes at the expense of another person’s loss. This is a fixed-pie environment. This indicates the existence of system-imposed barriers to entry to restrict supply.

In most cases, a guild’s barrier to entry is enforced by the State. Its members are using State coercion to restrict the supply of future competitors in order to increase their own income. This does not place a guild on the high moral ground. Compared to the use of State power to restrict entry, plagiarism is a minor offense.

February 1 , 2002

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. To subscribe to his free investment letter (e-mail), click here.

© 2002

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