Science is built on trust and misappropriating the work of others can jeopardize this trust. The American Association of University Professors defines plagiarism as “taking over the ideas, methods, or written words of another, without acknowledgment and with the intention that they be taken as the work of the deceiver.” Credit may be acknowledged in three places: the list of authors, an acknowledgment statement, and list of references or citations (On Being a Scientist, 1995:12). Conflicts over proper credit may arise in any one of these places.
The protection of intellectual property rights underpins this long-standing principle of science and scholarship that the work of others be appropriately acknowledged and cited. According to the National Academy of Science, “the principle of fairness and the role of personal recognition within the reward system of science account for the emphasis given to the proper allocation of credit” (On Being a Scientist, 1995:12).
Having one's work cited is an important part of the reward system in science. Individuals build their professional reputations through their work and the dissemination of it via publications. If credit for one's ideas is misallocated, this undermines the incentive system for scholarship and publication, which may have consequences for one's future career as a scientist.
The difficulty is that, given the free exchange of ideas both within and outside of the scientific enterprise, it is not always possible to identify the original source of an idea, set of words, or other forms of communication. Regardless, this does not absolve scientists from giving proper credit when they do know where an idea came from and it is an obligation essential to the integrity of scientific endeavors.