Harvard President Claudine Gay was at the top of her field, blazing trails as the first Black person to hold the post — until she resigned last week in part because of findings of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation written in 1997. Her case epitomizes a vital lesson and cautionary tale for individuals and companies: Ethical lapses, no matter how old, can surface years later to cast a shadow over one’s achievements, damage a company or industry, and spur costly litigation.
Plagiarism in the business world has led to notable cases that have harmed the reputations and legal standings of both individuals and companies. Some prominent cases of plagiarism in the business sector include:
Volkswagen’s emissions scandal: Volkswagen was found to have installed software in their diesel engines to cheat emissions tests. This was considered a form of plagiarism as they copied technology from other manufacturers without permission. Here's an explainer from the BBC.
Apple's GUI controversy: Apple developed a graphical user interface (GUI) for the Macintosh computer that was very similar to the one developed earlier by Xerox. This led to legal disputes between the two companies, the New York Times reported.
Oracle vs. Google: Oracle sued Google for using its Java code in the Android operating system. The case reached the Supreme Court, where Google was ultimately found not guilty of copyright infringement. Reuters explains.
Apple vs. Samsung: Apple sued Samsung for copying the design of the iPhone, leading to a prolonged patent battle and Samsung being ordered to pay $539 million in damages to Apple, according to The Verge.
The Role of Ethics in Business
Plagiarism — a term rooted in the Latin word “plagiarius,” meaning “kidnapper” or “plunderer” — breaches the principles of integrity and honesty. It undermines the value of original work and disrespects the efforts of the original creators.
In the business world — where some joke that the term “business ethics” is oxymoronic — employees at all levels are expected to operate with high integrity and originality. When business leaders engage in plagiarism, it not only tarnishes their reputation but also casts a shadow over their organization’s ethical standing. This erosion of trust can have far-reaching consequences, from losing customer confidence to negatively impacting employee morale and spurring drawn-out lawsuits.
The Impact on Reputation and Credibility
Of course, understanding and avoiding plagiarism is not just a matter of legal compliance but a fundamental aspect of maintaining personal integrity and upholding the values of honesty and originality in all professional endeavors.
Gay’s plagiarism case became a focal point for her critics and escalated the pressure for her to resign as Harvard president. The plagiarism revelations were compounded by the controversy surrounding her congressional testimony on antisemitism and the protests that roiled the school and left Jewish students feeling unsafe. It was the persistence of the plagiarism charges, despite their origin in a decades-old academic work, that created an institutional vulnerability and crisis of leadership.
Steps to Avoid Plagiarism at Work
Define plagiarism clearly: Clearly define what constitutes plagiarism in your company code of conduct. Include examples of both blatant (e.g., copying and pasting entire documents) and subtle forms (like paraphrasing without proper citation). This helps employees understand the boundaries and expectations regarding the originality of work.
Establish a protocol for citing sources: Implement a standardized method for citing sources in all company documents, presentations, and reports.
Use plagiarism detection tools: Encourage or mandate the use of plagiarism detection software for reviewing all external-facing documents. Tools such as Plagium, Viper, Copyleaks and others can help identify instances of copied content.
Hold training and awareness programs: Conduct regular training sessions and workshops on intellectual property rights and plagiarism to raise awareness about the ethical implications of plagiarism.
Encourage originality and accountability: Foster a workplace culture that values originality and holds individuals accountable for their work.
Stories of plagiarism and other ethical breaches — whether in tech, academia, music, literature, the arts, or doctoral dissertations — reinforce the need for open discussions and new compliance solutions to guide individuals to understand that ethical conduct is critical to a company’s competitive advantage.
Julian Guthrie is the CEO and founder of Alphy.
Reflect AI by Alphy is an AI communication compliance solution that detects and flags language that is harmful, unlawful, and unethical in digital communication. Alphy was founded to reduce the risk of litigation stemming from harmful and discriminatory communication while helping employees communicate more effectively.