Academic Integrity

Subconscious Plagiarism and Why it is Unavoidable

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We are all human, and even though most of us assume that plagiarism is a fraud and no one should ever plagiarise, we will subconsciously keep on doing it over and over again. True plagiarism occurs when one person deliberately takes the work of another person and declares to be the true creator of it.

Plagiarism is a theft, borrowing, or stealing that most likely will bring very serious consequences if it is ever revealed. There are different types of plagiarism. Some of us might consciously plagiarise for some reason, striving toward some purpose or goal. I know for sure that many designers, for instance, take literally thousands of photos during their trips to other countries. Later on, they will use all they saw and pictured – logos, commercials, ads, slogans, symbols for their own works. In 99.99% of cases, the fraud and plagiarism will not be revealed, as the creator of the original work will never see the plagiaristic copy produced by another person.

Subconsciously, many people will commit such plagiarism, strongly believing that they will never be caught. Especially if it concerns the cases of international cooperation on plagiarism: Not all countries have the same plagiarism laws, and not all plagiarists can be found and punished accordingly. Actually, there are so many details that each case should be treated individually.

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It occurs, when a person thinks or strongly believes that an idea or a work is a result of his or her own thinking or creative instincts.

Two cases of subconscious plagiarism

1. Public domain and copyright laws

The first case is rather simple. An artist, or an ordinary person, uses the works and ideas of other people and is 100% sure that such works and ideas belong to the public domain and are not protected by copyright laws. This person for some reason did not manage to find the original source of the work and simply copied it, having a strong belief that their action was not plagiaristic. Such cases can also concern adaptations of known works. Imagine that I am a very famous artist and I do my best to copy Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (a pure case of plagiarism) and add a beard to the lady’s face. I won’t attribute the painting to Da Vinci, I won’t accept any claims that I use the fame of Da Vinci’s work for my own popularity and commercial interests. It will be plagiarism, but still people will treat it subconsciously as a new art, a new approach, or a new technique and the personal style of the modern artist. Somehow it is similar to the case with the designers that I mentioned above, but here the creator won’t be afraid of using any artworks, as he or she will always present it as new style and new art – and the public will agree to it and will be easily involved with “plagiarism or not plagiarism game”.

2. Truly subconscious plagiarism

Another case is truly subconscious plagiarism. Some researchers would call it cryptomnesia and describe as a purely neurological phenomenon and issue. In fact, it is the case when the memory of any of us returns some forgotten thing and we do not realise that this idea or story model is not ours and we did not invent it, that we read or heard it a long time ago and have forgotten the real author-owner of the concept. Just imagine, once when you were 7 years old, you read a fairy tale written by some modern writer. As you grew up and went into your teens, you forgot many things from your childhood, including most of the fairy tales. Twenty years later, you get married and have your own child, you read the stories to your lovely baby and then, one day, you get the idea to invent your own fairy tale and then somehow you remember the fairy tale that you read only once when you were 7. You are sure that it’s your parental instinct and creative abilities that gave you the inspiration and idea. And voila! – you become one step closer to subconscious plagiarism.

How to deal with subconscious plagiarism

Here we should all be very careful. You got inspired by the idea or story that you believed to be your own and, instead of presenting it in a plagiaristic way and claiming it to be your work, you decided to make some changes, or you changed the names of the characters, or you simply did something slightly similar, but at the end this did not resemble the original source.

In this case, you can congratulate yourself: You created a new work, a new adaptation of some basic story, a new work of art, and maybe you will inspire someone else to rework your piece into something new. Alternatively, you thought of a good fairy tale, but decided to present it to your baby in the form of a theatrical play, and then you published the video of it (and here you plagiarise subconsciously and maybe slightly, so that even the author of the fairy tale is able to recognise their work in your play), someone saw it and made a video of a better quality and even a proper film or cartoon without your agreement and without any credits (and this is plagiarism in its pure form).

An alternative development you can probably guess. You wrote down the idea of a fairy tale, set it in words and published it as your own work. Some words might have been different, some names, but any educated literature student would be able to see the obvious resemblance of what you considered purely your invention and not a copy of the story that had been published by another author 20 years earlier. Anyone would be able to accuse you of plagiarism in this case, and for you it could be very difficult to prove in court that it was cryptomnesia and subconscious plagiarism rather than pure plagiarism (especially if in your attic there was a dusty copy of the fairy tale written 20 years ago).

If you have an insight and an extraordinary creative idea comes into your head, be very careful, especially if you plan to make it public and visible. Don’t publish it or sell it unless you have checked a hundred times on the Internet and in other sources – libraries, shops, newspapers, catalogues – that there is nothing similar existing in the field, that there are no similar characters and plots. Utilize the most accurate plagiarism checker to make sure your work is original. You will have to spend more time on your work, but it may save you your fair and honest name and a great sum of money afterwards.

Be smart and don’t play with the fire of plagiarism!