We need to look closer at who plagiarists are. It may help us more clearly understand what has been plagiarized and when.
The widespread pathology of plagiarism.
It’s not everywhere – it’s pretty much the same people doing it repeatedly. What’s disturbing is that people that get caught plagiarizing falling into one of two categories:
1)A student of some kind, taking a shortcut of some kind. Maybe not writing the paper, maybe just not sourcing it properly. Sometimes these students are not plagiarists at all, but they fall victim to the overstimulated self-importance of certain academics: for example, a professor once leveled an accusation at me that I had committed plagiarism because I dared use the word “parvenu” to describe the rise of Cicero within Roman society. Her basis was founded on nothing more than her personal belief that no state educated university student had the vocabulary or, for that matter, basic ability necessary to turn up the word.
2)A would-be writer who pathologically passes off others’ work as his or her own.
The confusion about bad documentation versus outright plagiarism
Material being free does not influence plagiarism either way. The people that do it likely prefer not to pay – but having to shell out for the goods doesn’t stop the compulsive ones anyway.
Still, there is some anti-plagiarist thought that has gone from hypervigilance into a misunderstanding of the nuances between plagiarized and documented.
A person quoting material is not plagiarizing – although that person may violate copyright, if too much material is quoted without permission.
Plagiarism is actually two criminal acts: a)fraud, passing someone else’s work off as your own and b)copyright violation, distributing work you do not have the right to distribute. Both aspects need to be there for something to be plagiarized.
A librarian is a far better resource on whether or not something constitutes plagiarism than is the average teacher or professor. Having direct experience with teachers from birth forward, I can tell you that there are a lot of things that we believe to be fact that are simply matters of opinion and teachers fall prey to this thought inversion all too often.