Think Tanks’ Dirty Little Secret: Power, Public Policy, and Plagiarism

98 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2013

Date Written: August 8, 2013


In academics, idea plagiarism is a sin of the first magnitude, whereas in business and politics, it is considered, well, academic - of no practical significance. Where do think tanks fit on that spectrum? Are they fish or fowl, or neither?

Compared to academic scholars, think tank scholars have a greater incentive to plagiarize ideas. The pressure to claim credit in both scholarly communities is great, but the pressure to give credit is relatively weak in think tanks. One reason is that the problem-solution structure of think tank work doesn’t include a contribution-to-literature section. Another reason is that think tanks don’t publish their work in peer-reviewed publications, which are well-designed for cost-effectively weeding out idea plagiarism.

Think tanks may claim to respect original work as much as universities. But that doesn’t mean it’s in their self-interest to act in accordance with those values. This paper provides eight case studies related to such behavior. The paper assumes that if think tank scholars, like academic scholars, claim to provide original work, then they should be held accountable for proving that they in fact do so. The author hopes that others will investigate the limitations of such an assumption.

Unfortunately, the two traditional approaches to discouraging idea theft, passing intellectual property law (primarily used in commerce) and relying on private institutions to cultivate social sanctions (primarily used in academics) are not well suited for think tanks. An alternative approach is a hybrid policy where law is used to strengthen social sanctions. For example, libel and transparency laws pertaining to think tanks could be reformed to encourage a more robust market in evaluations of public policy credit claims.

Keywords: Institutional Corruption, Plagiarism, Think Tanks, Intellectual Property, Innovation Policy, Libel Law, Citation Metadata

Suggested Citation

Snider, J. H., Think Tanks’ Dirty Little Secret: Power, Public Policy, and Plagiarism (August 8, 2013). Edmond J. Safra Working Papers, No. 17, Available at SSRN: or

J. H. Snider (Contact Author) ( email )

945 Old County Road
Severna Park, MD 21146
United States


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