Academic journal article Atlantic Economic Journal

A Game-Theoretic Model of Plagiarism

Academic journal article Atlantic Economic Journal

A Game-Theoretic Model of Plagiarism

Article excerpt


What keeps economists from plagiarizing the works of others? Part of the answer is that we are professionals who take pride in our work. Also, we believe that the penalties of such actions are far greater than the benefits if we are caught. Consequently, we believe that our reputations would suffer irreparable damage if it were known that we had plagiarized. There is also the fear of dismissal from our employing institution for such behavior. But are the penalties that great? Before any penalty can be assessed there has to be agreement that the act constituted plagiarism. Research by Enders and Hoover [2004, 2006] reveal that the profession does not have a clearly defined notion of what does and does not constitute plagiarism. There is also no governing body that has shown a willingness to act as arbitrator when a charge of unethical behavior is made. Should decisions come from a panel formed by the American Economic Association (AEA), journal editors, or employing institutions? None of these issues have been adequately addressed by members of the profession.

In a recent series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it was revealed that many cases of clear-cut plagiarism that get reported in academia go unexposed or unpunished. (1) If a potential plagiarist's greatest fear is being found out and having a damaged reputation what does it say that so few of these cases are ever publicized and the offender punished? This paper shows how it is possible that a case of plagiarism can occur without any public scrutiny, hence no damage to the offenders' reputation, even if the original author is made aware of the act. This assumes that there was some sanctioning body willing to hear the case, which presently does not exist.


In this simple model, there are two players (see Figure 1). The first mover in the game is the Author who is the originator of the idea or genesis of the paper. The second mover in the game is the Plagiarist.


The author has two actions available to her. She can choose to create a new paper for publication or not. If the author chooses not to create the paper, the payoffs for both her and the plagiarist would be zero.

Enders and Hoover [2006] and Arce, et al. [2005] show that authors typically take two paths to protect themselves from being plagiarized. Some authors will choose to establish ownership by dispersing the paper broadly through electronic working paper series, sending out multiple copies to others in their area, presenting at conferences and handing out copies, and other means.

Other authors do the opposite by never handing out copies of the paper or posting them where they can be seen by others before publication. As Enders and Hoover [2006] reveal and Arce, et al. [2005] show formally, neither method keeps a paper from being plagiarized. Both methods have their inherent costs. One cost of keeping papers secret until publication are lags in citations. Ellison [2002a, 2002b] shows that publication lags have increased dramatically. The longer it takes for a given paper to be read by other researchers and to be incorporated into ongoing research and then published itself, could cost in terms of citations and delay initiating other strands of research. If, however, the paper is widely and quickly dispersed, there is the danger that it will be seen and quickly plagiarized. Our model will show that despite the original author having clearly defined ownership rights, it is possible that the plagiarism can go unpunished.

Regardless of the dispersion method, if the paper is seen by the plagiarist, there are two options available to him. He can choose not to plagiarize or he can plagiarize the work. The reader should note, however, that this model assumes that the plagiarist has already deemed himself as someone that will take credit for work that is not his own. We do not make any claims as to the number of economists that will engage in this activity, but given current incentives and previous empirical research, it is clear that the number is not zero. …

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