Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Inadvertent Plagiarism in Young and Older Adults: The Role of Working Memory Capacity in Reducing Memory Errors

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Inadvertent Plagiarism in Young and Older Adults: The Role of Working Memory Capacity in Reducing Memory Errors

Article excerpt

Two experiments examined inadvertent plagiarism in young and older adults. Young and older adults took turns generating category exemplars in small groups, and after a short retention interval recall was tested and subjects were asked to generate new exemplars (i.e., exemplars not initially generated). When asked to generate new exemplars, older adults were more likely to repeat exemplars that had been generated earlier by others (i.e., generate-new plagiarism). When asked to recall the exemplars they had generated earlier, older adults were more likely to claim that they had generated exemplars that had been generated by others (i.e., recall-own plagiarism), and were also more likely to falsely recall exemplars that had not been generated at all. There were no age differences in confidence for items that were plagiarized on the generate-new task. Hierarchical regression analyses indicated that age differences in generate-new plagiarism and false recall were entirely mediated by measures of episodic recall and working memory capacity. We conclude that inadvertent plagiarism errors result from the failure of systematic decision processes, and that controlled attention is important for avoiding memory errors.

In the introduction to their 1989 article on inadvertent plagiarism, Brown and Murphy quote B. F. Skinner (1983): ". .. [O]ne of the most disheartening experiences of old age is discovering that a point you have just made-so significant, so beautifully expressed-was made by you in something you published a long time ago" (p. 242). Skinner not only emphatically makes the point that plagiarism is a distressing event, but also suggests that it is more likely to occur in old age. Although there is now a substantial literature examining inadvertent plagiarism in young adults, this paper is the first to report experiments examining adult age differences in inadvertent plagiarism. Because aging is associated with selective declines in episodic memory processes, studying age differences in inadvertent plagiarism has the potential to explicate the factors influencing this sort of memory error.

The Inadvertent-Plagiarism Paradigm

Plagiarism is typically thought of as the intentional, fraudulent theft of another person's thoughts, words, or ideas (Mallon, 1989). However, as the quotation from Skinner suggests, plagiarism does not have to be intentional, and can occur without conscious awareness. This type of plagiarism, called inadvertent plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, or cryptomnesia, occurs when people believe that thoughts, words, or ideas encountered previously are their own original creations (Brown & Murphy, 1989). Inadvertent plagiarism can be fairly innocuous or it can have serious consequences. For example, you may be a bit embarrassed, after telling a joke, to realize that the person you told it to is the one who originally told it to you; or you may be subject to legal penalties after inadvertently copying a thought or idea recently published by a colleague.

Brown and Murphy (1989) have developed a procedure, used extensively to study this topic, for studying inadvertent plagiarism experimentally. There are typically three phases involved in this paradigm, and we will use the method employed in the original study to illustrate this procedure. In the initial generation phase, a small group of subjects was given a category cue (e.g., a type of fruit) and was asked to take turns generating exemplars (e.g., apple, peach, kumquat, etc.) from the category. Following a short delay, subjects were asked to recall the words that they themselves generated earlier (the recall-own phase). In a final phase, subjects generated a small number of new exemplars from each of the categories (the generate-new phase). Subjects were instructed to provide only exemplars that had not already been generated. Inadvertent plagiarism was measured in each phase of this paradigm, operationalized in the initial-generation and generate-new phases as the proportion of responses that were repetitions of exemplars that were already generated (i. …

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