Levels of Plagiarism

Plagiarism! When we hear the word we think devious undergraduates out for the grade at any cost. Or we remember Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose and careers taking a hit. Earlier in the year, it was a wannabe writer and blogger named Ben Domenech who felt the heat. Today it’s Ann Coulter.

Now, as a certified leftist (David Horowitz called me a “patriotic dissenter” back when he was feeling kindly towards me), I’ll shed no tears for Coulter. However, I think we ought to think a little about what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism—certainly before piling on more censure.

Hers is not plagiarism like Domenech’s—not the deliberate stealing of someone else’s work and putting one’s own name on it. It is a type of plagiarism that can happen (almost) by accident—and certainly through carelessness. That doesn’t excuse it, but it should be seen in a different light.

Plagiarism, of course, has a great deal to do with research—and research is not something everyone is capable of doing well, no matter the resources available to them. Keeping the discussion just to research in the humanities and the social sciences, the universe of possibility has exploded over the last fifteen years, even for those who already had access to university resources.

Furthermore, research in the humanities differs substantially from research in the social sciences. In the former, research centers on the written word. In the latter, written words play only a part (as “review of the literature,” etc.) in a broader process. By now, it should be a truism that social-science research cannot be conducted solely through web resources, though people like Horowitz do keep trying (and failing). Fortunately, such people are not taken seriously by those who understand just what sociological (say) research means.

Humanities research, however, can be conducted successfully through the words of others. And therein lies the problem.

Let me explain (anyone who has written for the humanities will recognize what I describe):

When I read, I dog-ear pages, underline passages, and make notes in margins. If what I am reading is part of a research project, I go back to selected passages once I am done and copy them into my computer. When I read online, I do something similar, though it’s the easier cut-and-paste that results. I am very, very careful with these passages, keeping them separate from my own prose and each passage together with a reference note. These quotations each serve one of three purposes: First, they serve as reminders for points I want to make, generally confirming a conclusion I had previously come to myself—or that I had run across elsewhere. These I generally delete after I have written my own related passage. Though not original thoughts, I take care not to simply paraphrase them, let alone incorporate them wholesale into my work. A work I use in this manner will be noted in my bibliography. Second, some passages serve as particularly well-phrased examples of points I will be making in my own work. These I will quote directly, providing a reference note. The quotes serve to affirm that the point I am making is confirmed by others—that I am not making things up out of whole cloth. Third are the original concepts of others that I want to incorporate into my own writing. Here, I may quote or paraphrase, but I will always give direct credit, through a note, to the originator.

The types of plagiarism represented by misuse of these three purposes are quite distinct. Purposefully plagiarizing someone’s common-knowledge and pedestrian description is just plain stupid and needless. The information wouldn’t warrant a citation in the first place (who cares where you learned that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were responsible, in that order of proportion, for The Federalist Papers?). Stealing someone’s beautiful phrasing and incorporating it into one’s own work without acknowledgement is something of an aesthetic decision–and it has also been a part of the creation of even great art for eons (that doesn’t make it right, but does make it art), but that doesn’t make it right—and it is not something I am willing to do (though I am perfectly willing to echo them, as I do Raymond Carver in my second paragraph). There’s a limit to even this: the original should never be hidden, as it was in the book by Kaavya Viswanathan that got so much attention this spring. This reaches the level of deceit represented by the third, the much more problematic plagiarism and, I think, of a type that should be taken much more seriously, for it is here that real damage can be done to the originator.

I have trouble with plagiarism of all three of these three types—in ascending significance—but only the third , and a certain type of the second, approaches (or surpasses) the dishonesty of simply taking the work of another and putting one’s own name on it. The others are annoyances worthy of chastisement, but they don’t amount to much—though the owners of the rights of works of art co-opted this way might argue otherwise.

The plagiarism of Ann Coulter strikes me as the result of sloppiness and inattention—plagiarism of the first type. The passages she plagiarized all seem to be plebian. She probably used them simply out of laziness, not dishonesty. Why, after all, use the mundane phrasing of another on a pedestrian topic? There’s nothing to be gained and, as Coulter is learning, much to be lost. I can’t see how it could be intentional. That doesn’t excuse her, but it does separate her from Domenech, who claimed whole articles by others as his own.

What happened to her is probably what happened to Ambrose and Goodwin. All three likely did what I do (or had underlings do it for them), but sufficient care was not taken to keep the copied prose from original writings. They weren’t creating art and they certainly weren’t involved in subterfuge—they simply did not paraphrase when they should have. The failure is not so much one of honesty but of care.

Though I would love to see Ann Coulter hung out to dry, I don’t think this is the issue that should be used. She is not a scholar and has none of a scholar’s rigor or attention to detail. Keeping her name in the news is her game, and she has to have material allowing her to do that. As she is not attempting to add to any body of knowledge, all she needs to do is slop together the thoughts of others, picking out snippets that she can use. That she sometimes forgets to put those snippets into words of her own is certainly one of her most minor, and inconsequential, faults.

Plagiarism of the sort Coulter engaged in certainly does need to be pointed out—but the fact of it should not be used to destroy her career or get her thrown off of the papers that carry her.

There are plenty of other reasons for that.

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