Give and Take

The path from interdependence to success

Is it Wrong to Plagiarize From an Email?

Where do you draw on the line on what's okay to borrow?

Last year, before the launch of my first book, I promised my publisher that I would send an email about it to my friends, colleagues, and former students. I spent hours agonizing over the wording of the first draft, wanting to make sure that I wasn’t spamming the people close to me, but sending something they’d be happy to read. After several days of tinkering, I finally sent it out.

A few weeks later, I was in for a surprise. A colleague had written a book, and he sent an email announcing it to his network, using the text from my message…verbatim.

I was taken aback, but I didn’t say anything. I like and respect the guy, and after all, it was just an email. I didn’t want to embarrass him or damage the relationship; I’m sure he meant no harm by it. You could even make a case for interpreting the event as positive feedback. As Charles Caleb Colton famously said, “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”

Later that month, I received an email from a different friend who was releasing a book. He had reproduced my message too, word for word, with a few minor adjustments to reflect the content of his book. How could this be? I would never use someone else’s sentences and pass them off as my own. Plagiarism is a cardinal sin in academia, and one of the perpetrators is a fellow professor.

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Maybe I was overreacting, though. If two different people found it acceptable to use my words, I might be in the minority in thinking that it crossed an ethical line. The authors clearly didn’t think it was wrong to copy my email without rephrasing it: if they had any qualms, surely they would have removed me from their email lists!

I decided to let it go, but it didn’t go away. In recent months, it has happened three more times. When I described the situation to people close to me, they were mad. As a psychologist who studies motivation, it’s my job to analyze situations that make people angry and approach them with curiosity. To understand it better, I began reading about plagiarism.

Traditionally, courts of law have distinguished between two ways that people can plagiarize the work of others. One is kleptomnesia, a lovely term coined by the psychologist Dan Gilbert to describe accidental, unconscious plagiarism. It occurs when you encounter someone else’s idea, forget the source, and come to believe it was your own. Kleptomnesia has many famous victims, from George Harrison of the Beatles to Helen Keller and Robert Louis Stevenson. In my situation, kleptomnesia clearly wasn’t the culprit, since only people with an eidetic memory—or a freakish amount of free time—would commit more than 400 e-words to memory without realizing they came from someone else.

The other kind of plagiarism is intentional: it’s a conscious, deliberate attempt to steal someone else’s ideas and get away with it. This doesn’t seem like a plausible explanation either. My colleagues copied an email, not a literary masterpiece.

The internet has cracked down on kleptomnesia and intentional plagiarism. Now, online tools can instantly crawl through millions of records to see if your writing is authentically yours. Yet the digital era has opened the door for a third kind of plagiarism. It’s what I suspect happened to my friends.

Let’s call it cut-and-paste plagiarism. They started out by copying my email as a template, edited it a bit, and then moved on to other tasks. When they came back to it, they genuinely didn’t remember how many of the sentences weren’t original.

It’s all too easy to make this mistake. Most people are careful with books and articles, recognizing that the safest way to avoid cut-and-paste plagiarism is to not cut and paste at all. But email is a gray area. If you like a phrase that a friend coins in an email, can you start using it? Is it wrong that I started signing emails “Cheers, Adam” without acknowledging that I was following the lead of my favorite professor, Brian Little? If I cite him below each signature, should I also clarify that I became especially fond of the habit after spending a sabbatical in England, and list the names of the colleagues who also favor this bit of British cheer?

When I shared a draft of this post with another author I know, he replied that e-plagiarism happened to him recently too, and he felt I was “being too charitable.” After he sent a note announcing his book to an email list, another author “ripped off most of my email word-for-word,” laments this author, who asked not to be named. “I complained—to her, to the publication that sent it on her behalf, and to her book editor. She didn’t respond. Her publication said it wasn’t a big deal. And her book editor apologized profusely. Strange.”

“You’d figure a writer ought to know better,” this author says. “Plagiarism is a no-no. And an email sent to several thousand people isn’t private communication. It’s much closer to something that’s published. The funny thing is, if she had asked in advance to use some of my language, I likely would have said yes. But since she apparently tried to pull a fast one, I didn’t shed any tears when her book turned out to be a huge flop.” 

Where should we draw the line on what counts as email plagiarism? Needless to say, I think a single word is fair game for the taking. Here’s my proposal:

If you use a full sentence or more from an email that someone else wrote, quote it and attribute it to that person. Otherwise, take the high road and rewrite it from scratch in your own words.

If you’re one of the authors who borrowed my email message, I don’t hold it against you. In fact, I’m grateful that you provided the fodder for this post. I couldn’t have written it without you.

Cheers,

Adam

***

For more on the dynamics of giving and taking credit, see Adam's book Give and Take, a New York Times bestseller. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrant

Adam Grant, Ph.D., is a professor at Wharton and the author of Give and Take.

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