Reputation for plagiarism

Plagiarism is certainly worthy of disdain when it constitutes actual theft — collecting payment that the original creator would have received — but why do we also tend to take a dim view of instances of plagiarism where there is no discernible material harm?

Koen Smets
7 min readJan 12, 2024

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Plagiarism is in the news. It played a role in the resignation of Harvard president Claudine Gay, as significant portions of her academic output were allegedly copied from other papers, and all of a sudden everyone and their dog are looking for evidence of plagiarism in academia, journalism and beyond. Clearly, plagiarism that involves copying someone else’s work without permission and passing it as one’s own deprives the originator from rightful revenue, and this is widely disapproved, both on legal and moral grounds. But we also seem to despise plagiarism when nobody is actually being harmed — for example when, in a social setting, someone falsely passes of a joke they were told by a friend as their own. Why might that be?

Reputation, a possession more precious than money?

Our ideas contribute to our reputation, and a good reputation is of great importance for the social beings we are. It opens doors, encourages others to cooperate and share their resources with us, attracts potential mates, and helps us realize our goals. Unsurprisingly, we seek to enhance our reputation, but we also dislike it when others do so, for example by bragging (or, worse, humblebragging, making insincerely modest allusions to one’s qualities or achievements). Appropriating somebody else’s ideas or creations is especially worthy of contempt as it could cause reputational harm (by depriving the originator of the reputational benefits of their ideas). But might people denounce plagiarism also, or perhaps even specifically, regardless of any harm, because it seen as a deceptive reputation management tactic that falsely inflates the plagiarist’s reputation?

This is a question two psychologists, Ike Silver and Alex Shaw set out to investigate. They conducted six experiments based on vignettes to identify what is behind the moral condemnation of plagiarism in the absence of…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius