The Institutional Economics of Plagiarism

by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2004

‘Angry Moderate’ made a comment on my post on plagiarism last week, which I’ve been meaning to respond to.

bq. Richard Ellickson’s marvellous book, Order Without Law, notes that the first and usually most effective sanction against violators of a community norm is, “truthful malicious gossip.” In my experience, this is quite common with regard to plagiarists – and the worst plagiarism is not copying off some web-site but stealing other scholars’ ideas and/or empirical material before they publish it – and quite appropriate and quite effective. The only problem is the equally large circulation of untruthful malicious gossip.

This seems to me to be the beginnings of an interesting take on the problem of plagiarism – like Robert Ellickson’s cattle ranchers in Shasta county, we could resolve the problem of plagiarism informally, if only we had an effective means of spreading truthful malicious (as opposed to untruthful malicious) gossip about who has plagiarized. The problem is, of course, that the informal personal networks of academia don’t seem up to the task – as the “Chronicle”: reported, even the department chairs of some offending academics don’t seem to know that they have plagiarized. Thus, part of the problem is poor communications among academics. Here, the new institutional economics suggests that centralized communications can play an important role. Work by game theorists suggests that a centralized communications structure in which one actor is an “honest broker” of information about who has behaved badly and who hasn’t, can support honest behaviour among a much larger group of participants than a decentralized structure which relies on one-to-one gossip alone. As Avner Greif, Paul Milgrom and Barry Weingast have pointed out, this was one of the key functions that guilds played in the late mediaeval period – they had centralized communications systems policing the behaviour of guild members to ensure that they all played by the rules. Any member of the guild who broke the rules (by trading with someone who the guild was boycotting) would find that he was boycotted himself by other guild members.[1]

Of course, in academia, the closest equivalent to guild structures – the various professional associations – don’t play this role. As the Chronicle documents, they seem loath to discipline their members – and even more loath to publicize their disciplinary actions when they take them. Clearly, they don’t have the powers to punish plagiarists themselves. But by identifying and publicizing incidents of plagiarism they could do a lot to solve the problem, leaving the actual enforcement to one-to-one interactions among academics themselves, so that identified plagiarists would find it difficult to get jobs and grants. The current situation in which it’s difficult to distinguish ‘real’ incidents of plagiarism from malicious gossip, is in many ways the worst of all possible worlds. Of course this wouldn’t be a complete solution – some of the kinds of plagiarism that ‘Angry Moderate’ identifies would be hard to police – but it would go a fair way towards remedying the problem.

fn1. Greif, Avner, Paul Milgrom, and Barry R. Weingast. “Coordination, Commitment and Enforcement: The Case of the Merchant Guild.” in Explaining Social Institutions. eds. Jack Knight, and Itai Sened. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995



Brett Bellmore 12.21.04 at 7:19 pm

I have to think that Google’s recent commitment to scan into the net the contents of several major libraries is going to have some impact on plagiarism; There’s nothing quite like the certainty of being caught to deter.


Jason Kuznicki 12.21.04 at 8:44 pm

“if only we had an effective means of spreading truthful malicious (as opposed to untruthful malicious) gossip about who has plagiarized.”

How about blogs?


cw 12.21.04 at 10:01 pm

There are limits to the informal network here. Someone in my field has been sending out anonymous emails accusing several authors of stealing an idea without citation.

It’s the sort of idea that lots of people could (and have) come to independently, but someone’s been bent on retribution for not being cited. It’s been a bit unpleasant for one of the attacked authors just starting their career.


eudoxis 12.22.04 at 12:54 am

“…and the worst plagiarism is not copying off some web-site but stealing other scholars’ ideas and/or empirical material before they publish it…”

My husband and I have both had very unpleasant experiences with this, and there is little recourse, least of all “truthful malicious gossip”. In the sciences, where many ideas are patentable, there is a great incentive to “scoop”. The person with the greates interest in a malicious gossip retribution may be the only person doing so. We found it very useful to sign and notarize our ideas as soon as they were hatched.


Nicholas Packwood 12.22.04 at 3:24 am

This is all interesting… Some thoughts. I would like to see the notions of “truth” and “communication” problematized here. Certainly there is room for dispute over the generation of ideas and particularly in collaborative research contexts. I am also uneasy at the idea of some broker reducing the signal/noise ratio in some transparent ideal of communicative interaction. Finally, malicious gossip may be a better weapon of the scoundrel than the person seeking to use it as a form of redress. I point to retaliatory negative eBay feedback as a source of many, many examples.


Kenny Easwaran 12.22.04 at 7:45 am

When you mentioned “one actor [who] is an “honest broker” of information about who has behaved badly and who hasn’t”, I immediately thought of Brian Leiter for the discipline of philosophy. And of course he would be completely wrong for this role for all sorts of reasons. Even though he is a centralized source that a large number of people read and is generally regarded as giving fairly accurate information (though accuracy isn’t the major issue with the sorts of things his blog tends to be composed of these days).


Zaoem 12.22.04 at 9:01 am

Basically what we need is the academic version of the “better business bureau.” Should be possible to get an NSF grant for the start-up costs?


Jonathan Dresner 12.24.04 at 9:39 am

Independent journalism, held to some reasonable standards of accountability. Blogs should be part of the process, particularly as most fields develop bloggers of some note. Independent web publications like can do a great deal to accumulate and archive and monitor situations with relatively low costs.

What it takes is a critical mass (and that mass is pretty small, actually) of members of a field who are determined to address the problem and a few people willing to stand up and say “this is the evidence”

It’s not perfect, but it’s a long way better than handwringing and delegating the job to quasi-guild institutions (which have largely abandoned it as too great a liability, anyway)


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