Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Plagiarism and causation

Suppose I write a paper and you write a paper of the same length. But then I plagiarize your paper using the following procedure. I look at the first character in our papers, and if it’s different, I erase (unless it’s a space) the character in my paper and write down the character you had in its place. And then I repeat for the second, third, and so on. I then submit the paper for publication.

It seems clear that I’ve plagiarized your paper in its entirety, even though some of the letters in my paper weren’t erased as by coincidence I originally had the same letter in the same place as you did—this will happen more often with more common letters like “e”.

But what if, by chance, your paper and my original paper were verbatim the same, and I never noticed this? Then the paper I submit for publication depends for all of its content counterfactually on the paper you wrote, but not a letter was changed from the paper that I wrote. If authorship is defined by causation, then the paper I am submitting is my own. If it’s defined by counterfactual dependence, it’s yours.

I don’t know which is the right answer.


Michael Staron said...

Is it reasonable to say that the tokens of the words changed as I went through the process of looking at the other paper? So that I originally wrote a paper, which was not plagiarized, but then I "rewrote" it by going through the process of looking at the other paper in the way you described, yielding a second copy of the other paper in front of me (despite the fact that no physical changes on the page occurred). Maybe this can happen with artifacts?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I really like that. After all, an artifact can perish and a new artifact come into being by being repurposed. Previously, I had a device for conveying my thoughts. Now I have a device for conveying your thoughts.

An even clearer case is where I have a sentence in English and then I realize that the same sequence of markings means something else in another language. So I repurpose the inscription and thereby change its meaning without any physical change in it.

I wonder how far one can push this. Suppose you and I independently wrote papers that are word-for-word the same. But two things happened. First, I lost my manuscript. Second, you tossed your manuscript in the trash, having changed your mind about it. I retrieve your manuscript, read it, and having a photographic memory of my own manuscript realize that sending this manuscript off for publication under my name will save me the trouble of retyping.

In this case, I repurposed your paper into a device for conveying my text (=my text type, not token). Am I a plagiarist? I don't think so (though I may have violated social etiquette by going through the trash).

Alexander R Pruss said...

What actually inspired my post, though, was thinking about the memory theory of personal identity. Normally, causal transmission and counterfactual transmission of memories go together. But one can imagine cases, such as when the memory from an identical twin is imposed on one's brain using a procedure rather like the one described in this post, where there is counterfactual transmission without causal transmission.

Benjamin Stowell said...

"Am I a plagiarist? I don't think so"

Given the intellectual etiquette of acknowledging those who came before you (or beside you) with similar or exact ideas of your own (insofar as you're aware), I think you'd be obligated to edit the paper to mention the name on the paper in the trash!

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's true, unless my paper came first. And it could have. :-)