I was a little dismayed to read of Montana's John Walsh dropping out of his Senate race, because it was discovered that he had plagiarized sections of a research paper he had submitted while at the Army War College. As "Crooks and Liars'" Karoli noted, though, Rand Paul was found to have plagiarized sections of his speeches and a book and faced absolutely no consequences. Of course, allegations of plagiarism have dogged Joe Biden for decades- part of me wants to believe him when he states that it was a momentary failure to credit Neal Kinnock, but the bigger part of me believes that he should have come up with his own damn words.
Plagiarism is a funny thing in this age of the internet, where cut-and-paste jobs are easy to do, but a cut-and-search effort will reveal instances of stolen passages. Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today brings up the aphorism “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.” and promptly excoriates it. I always endeavor to post links to sources when I write more substantial posts, especially my Secret Science Club recaps, but it's often hard to rephrase a concept without sounding obtuse or precious. Still, if any phrase sounds "too good", I plug it into a search engine to see if someone else has come up with it (this is especially important when I come up with what I think is a neologism).
I am reminded of an anecdote told about Paul McCartney's writing of Yesterday, in which the song came to the "cute Beatle" in a dream, and he agonized over whether it was an original song or not, playing it for several colleagues in an attempt to identify it. Yesterday sure sounds like it could have been a traditional ballad, which is one of the more humorous plot points of Tim Powers' wonderful novel, The Anubis Gates. Paul bent over backwards to make sure he wasn't stealing, and is a good role model for writers of good intention.
For me, plagiarism is a sin against the Muse, and a theft against oneself, as well as the writer(s) one is stealing from. I love the language, I love wordplay- stealing the works and words of others deprives one of the fun of writing. In an academic setting, it deprives one of the joys of true discovery- the seeking and utilization of multiple sources of information to gain a well-rounded understanding of one's topic. Plagiarism, is the sin of crass, lazy utilitarians- the sort of people who are content to gain a diploma without gaining an education. As someone who has gleefully scattered his various written pieces of various lengths across the internet, I don't just have scorn for plagiarists, but I have pity as well. You don't need to steal words- if you have the diligence and the patience, they come to you, oftimes unbidden.