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How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the last post, we discussed why fabrication and falsification are harmful to scientific knowledge-building. The short version is that if you’re trying to build a body of reliable knowledge about the world, making stuff up (rather than, say, making careful observations of that world and reporting those observations accurately) tends not to get you closer to that goal.

Along with fabrication and falsification, plagiarism is widely recognized as a high crime against the project of science, but the explanations for why it’s harmful generally make it look like a different kind of crime than fabrication and falsification. For example, Donald E. Buzzelli (1999) writes:

[P]lagiarism is an instance of robbing a scientific worker of the credit for his or her work, not a matter of corrupting the record. (p. 278)

Kenneth D, Pimple (2002) writes:

One ideal of science, identified by Robert Merton as “disinterestedness,” holds that what matters is the finding, not who makes the finding. Under this norm, scientists do not judge each other’s work by reference to the race, religion, gender, prestige, or any other incidental characteristic of the researcher; the work is judged by the work, not the worker. No harm would be done to the Theory of Relativity if we discovered Einstein had plagiarized it…

[P]lagiarism … is an offense against the community of scientists, rather than against science itself. Who makes a particular finding will not matter to science in one hundred years, but today it matters deeply to the community of scientists. Plagiarism is a way of stealing credit, of gaining credit where credit is not due, and credit, typically in the form of authorship, is the coin of the realm in science. An offense against scientists qua scientists is an offense against science, and in its way plagiarism is as deep an offense against scientists as falsification and fabrication are offenses against science. (p. 196)

Pimple is claiming that plagiarism is not an offense that undermines the knowledge-building project of science per se. Rather, the crime is in depriving other scientists of the reward they are due for participating in this knowledge-building project. In other words, Pimple says that plagiarism is problematic not because it is dishonest, but rather because it is unfair.

While I think Pimple is right to identify an additional component of responsible conduct of science besides honesty, namely, a certain kind of fairness to one’s fellow scientists, I also think this analysis of plagiarism misses an important way in which misrepresenting the source of words, ideas, methods, or results can undermine the knowledge-building project of science.

On the surface, plagiarism, while potentially nasty to the person whose report is being stolen, might seem not to undermine the scientific community’s evaluation of the phenomena. We are still, after all, bringing together and comparing a number of different observation reports to determine the stable features of our experience of the phenomenon. But this comparison often involves a dialogue as well. As part of the knowledge-building project, from the earliest planning of their experiments to well after results are published, scientists are engaged in asking and answering questions about the details of the experience and of the conditions under which the phenomenon was observed.

Misrepresenting someone else’s honest observation report as one’s own strips the report of accurate information for such a dialogue. It’s hard to answer questions about the little, seemingly insignificant experimental details of an experiment you didn’t actually do, or to refine a description of an experience someone else had. Moreover, such a misrepresentation further undermines the process of building more objective knowledge by failing to contribute the actual insight of the scientist who appears to be contributing his own view but is actually contributing someone else’s. And while it may appear that a significant number of scientists are marshaling their resources to understand a particular phenomenon, if some of those scientists are plagiarists, there are fewer scientists actually grappling with the problem than it would appear.

In such circumstances, we know less than we think we do.

Given the intersubjective route to objective knowledge, failing to really weigh in to the dialogue may end up leaving certain of the subjective biases of others in place in the collective “knowledge” that results.

Objective knowledge is produced when the scientific community’s members work with each other to screen out subjective biases. This means the sort of honesty required for good science goes beyond the accurate reporting of what has been observed and under what conditions. Because each individual report is shaped by the individual’s perspective, objective scientific knowledge also depends on honesty about the individual agency actually involved in making the observations. Thus, plagiarism, which often strikes scientists as less of a threat to scientific knowledge (and more of an instance of “being a jerk”), may pose just as much of a threat to the project of producing objective scientific knowledge as outright fabrication.

What I’m arguing here is that plagiarism is a species of dishonesty that can undermine the knowledge-building project of science in a direct way. Even if what has been lifted by the plagiarist is “accurate” from the point of view of the person who actually collected or analyzed the data or drew conclusions from it, separating this contribution from its true author means it doesn’t function the same way in the ongoing scientific dialogue.

In the next post, we’ll continue our discussion of the duties of scientists by looking at what the positive duties of scientists might be, and by examining the sources of these duties.
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Buzzelli, D. E. (1999). Serious deviation from accepted practices. Science and Engineering Ethics, 5(2), 275-282.

Pimple, K. D. (2002). Six domains of research ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics, 8(2), 191-205.
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Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Rolf Degen 1:21 am 12/24/2013

    Plagiarism is also too repetitive. If you copy the ideas or formulations of others, you miss the creativity and innovation you get if you think for yourself through those ideas and sentences. You miss the opportunity to find new ideas and thus betray the spirit of science.

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  2. 2. RobLL 1:05 pm 12/24/2013

    You might discuss this in light off the Crick/Watson and Franklin episode. I don’t think your point really holds up. Bad science is one thing, bad scientists another. I don’t think there is a need to say the two things are the same things.

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  3. 3. jayjacobus 11:01 pm 12/24/2013

    The issue of intellectual property is tough to understand. The best solution may be to use your own ideas,thoughts and words. Even then you may inadvertently come up with an idea that has already been written up.

    Link to this

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