“Group and Collaborative Influences on Unconscious Plagiarism”

The title of this blog post was the title of a poster I came across at a recent conference–the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, which was held this year in Boston, MA. The authors of the poster were Brandy Johnson, from Iowa State University, and Martin Bink, from the U.S. Army Research Institute. Because this relates to one of my previous posts, I thought I’d take a moment to share the main findings…

First, to refresh your memory, unconscious plagiarism (or cryptomnesia) “occurs when an original idea is produced by someone  who is unaware that it was previously generated by someone else at an earlier time” (Johnson & Bink). By this definition, you could even unconsciously plagiarize yourself (i.e. by coming up with an idea, forgetting about it, and later on reproducing the same idea under the impression that you’re being original).

Many studies utilize a group brainstorming paradigm to study cryptomnesia, in which groups of participants orally generate ideas or lists of items (e.g. exemplars of a category). Participants then subsequently attempt to recall their own generated responses, and finally they are asked to generate additional (completely new) responses. Unconscious plagiarism in the second phase–i.e. falsely recalling someone else’s response as your own–is believed to occur because individuals misattribute the source of their memories.

The authors of the poster in question attempted to influence participants’ source monitoring processes by manipulating the social dynamics of a group brainstorming task. In their study, four-person groups of participants were asked to generate responses for two different questions (“What are some ways in which the university might be improved?” and “How can the number of traffic accidents be reduced?”). During this Initial Generation phase, the groups were instructed to orally generate four ideas for each of the two questions. One week later, participants returned for a Final Generation phase. In this phase, participants were asked again to generate four ideas for each of the two questions, but they were explicitly instructed NOT to use any ideas that had been generated during the Initial Generation session. The dependent variable was the proportion of plagiarized ideas at Final Generation.

The primary manipulation in the study was whether participants generated ideas in their original groups or alone during Final Generation. In addition, the modality of response during Final Generation was also manipulated , so that participants either gave their responses aloud or in a written format.

The results showed an interesting interaction between these variables. For participants who completed the Final Generation phase in their original groups, those who offered ideas aloud plagiarized significantly less than those who offered their ideas in a more private, written format. This suggests that responding aloud encouraged participants to use more strict source decision criteria.

In addition, the rates of plagiarism were higher, overall, when participants completed the Final Generation phase on their own.  This supports the researchers’ hypotheses that generating ideas in a group setting contextualizes the information that comes to mind and makes source attribution easier, possibly due to the presence of additional physical and social cues. In contrast to the results described above, participants working alone also plagiarized more when responding aloud than when providing written responses–an unexpected finding that warrants further study.

The take-home message of the study: rates of unconscious plagiarism were lower when participants generated ideas aloud and in a group setting during Final Generation. The authors conclude that responding aloud makes people more careful (i.e. they use a stricter source-monitoring criterion) because they know that their responses will be heard by the entire group. When instructed to write their responses on a piece of paper that no one else can see, however, any “fear of getting caught” by the group is alleviated, and people relax their decision criteria. The rates of unconscious plagiarism rise as a result.


Johnson, B. & Bink, M. “Group and Collaborative Influences on Unconscious Plagiarism.” Poster presented at the 50th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Boston, MA. (November, 2009)

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