Your Idea Is Brilliant; Glad I Thought Of It
By Michael Schrage

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Liars, cheats, and thieves. No corporate vermin are more infuriating than the snakes and weasels who take credit for the ideas of others.

You've met them. They shamelessly cloak their flagrant parasitism under the feel-good banners of "teamwork" and "collaboration." Ignore them and their thievery becomes more brazen. Confront them, and the practiced smirk of wounded innocence oozes from their lying lips: "Who, me? It was the group's idea, and I simply felt I could do the best job championing it to the boss. You know, [YOUR FIRST NAME HERE], there's no 'I' in team."

In a university, of course, taking other people's ideas and passing them off as your own is better known as plagiarism, and once qualified as grounds for expulsion or dismissal. Unsurprisingly, as disciplinary standards in academe have eroded and the Internet has mutated into the world's largest term-paper mill, campus plagiarism has been on the rise.

But a remarkable counter-revolution is under way. While it remains shockingly easy for sneaky students to "borrow" Net research to compile impressively comprehensive reports, theses, or dissertations, it turns out that, unless the plagiarism is unusually clever, such thievery can be forensically detected. The very technologies that make such plagiarism so simple, tempting, and seductive can also be used to nail the perpetrators.

At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, the plagiarism plague spawned plagiarism.org, an entrepreneurial not-for-profit service that invites teachers to submit suspect papers. Drawing upon an increasingly sophisticated array of webots and pattern-matching algorithms, plagiarism.org can often highlight the precise passages in which texts have been paraphrased or misappropriated. It's impressive. Computer-science professors have been using programs like it to catch students plagiarizing software assignments for years. Needless to say, there are more than a few invertebrate administrators and ethically challenged students who consider the counter-measures a greater evil than the crime of plagiarism itself.

But to hell with academic ethics; let's get back to business. As more and more work resides on the corporate network in digital form, organizations will have the opportunity to create their own counterparts to plagiarism.org. With time-stamped e-mail and audit trails that can establish who browsed through what database when, the ability to establish both priority and participation is getting easier. Any organization that genuinely cares about making sure that its people are properly recognized--if not rewarded--for their creative contributions will have the power to do so.

What's more, these infrastructures can work equally as well from the top down as from the bottom up. Top managers can make it clear that they have the power to look at the origins and evolution of any major initiative that reaches their in-box. Similarly, folks who fear that their contributions have been unfairly slighted can, with the tap of a few keys, swiftly communicate their documented version of events to a sympathetic colleague or their boss' hated rival.

Of course, in a healthy organization, those kinds of measures are rarely necessary. The boss is happy to credit her subordinates for their brilliance, in no small part because her job is getting her subordinates to be more brilliant than they might otherwise be. Colleagues hail the contributions of others because such efforts are almost always reciprocated. In healthy organizations, the benefits of attribution consistently outweigh the costs. So there are always more good ideas than the organization can handle.

Sadly, most organizations are not healthy. Credit stealing and plagiarism are rife. Weasels are rewarded, and snakes slither up the greasy pole with pride.

Creating the equivalent of plagiarism.org doesn't "solve" or "eliminate" the problem or "cure" a sick culture. On the other hand, it might raise the barrier for bad behaviors. Do I get a greater return on my efforts by being sneaky or by being cooperative? Do weasels confronted by an internal plagiarism.com try to become better weasels? Or do they now calculate that it makes more sense to share credit than to confiscate it? Plagiaristic parasites will always infest any institution where the quality of the idea is more highly valued than the quality of the people who created it. But the task of discouraging the "free rider" phenomenon is being made easier by technology. The choice is straightforward: Give more power to the people or give more power to their parasites.

MICHAEL SCHRAGE is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's e-markets initiative and author of Serious Play. Reach him at michael_schrage@fortunemail.com.