Plagiarism: Honestly!

Two recent plagiarism cases point clearly to what should already have been obvious: Our ways of viewing plagiarism neither solve the problem nor further academic discussion. If anything, they may do more the opposite, even setting a roadblock to clear, careful discussion and even to academic freedom.

In an article published in Harper’s, the novelist Jonathan Lethem tries to raise this issue, pointing out that everything written and spoken is, in some sense, plagiarized and pointing out that concern for plagiarism is, in many more senses, a smokescreen for a desire for ownership. Also recognizing this, Erik Campbell, writing in Virginia Quarterly Review, tries to divert the discussion into two types of plagiarism, Hard and Soft, the first dealing with the words themselves, the second dealing with ideas. He ends his essay with this:

And so, naturally, I then began to think about Alice Cooper and how he stole some stage theatrics from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and how Ozzy Osbourne later stole much of Cooper’s iconography and how Marilyn Manson is really an amalgam of the Cooper–Ozzy archetype and I tried and tried to quiet my mind and find sleep. To sleep. Aye, perchance to dream . . .

And although I read somewhere that every breath we take contains a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath, I breathed deeply anyway, hoping that—if not my breath—then my dreams might prove to be my own.

But part of me knew better.

Faithfully yours,

Dionysus

With the connectivity that underpins our language, languages, and life, there’s no real originality, never was. All comes from, comes from, comes from… even when it seems startling and different.

Most of us academics and journalists do understand this, yet we also manage to hold that plagiarism is a sin of the first rate, blasting the culprits while utilizing the crime and its results, confusing unsophisticated writers and students.

In the first of the recent cases, a Bush administration religious-right advocate was caught:

A review by The News-Sentinel found that of the 38 columns Mr. [Tim] Goeglein published since 2000, 19 included plagiarized material, according to Mr. [Kerry] Hubartt [editor of the Fort Wayne, Indiana News-Sentinel]. He said the paper would no longer publish work by Mr. Goeglein, whom he described as “well respected here by a lot of people.”

“There was no reason for it that I can see,” Mr. Hubartt said, noting that Mr. Goeglein had submitted columns voluntarily and had no deadlines to meet. “He was not under any pressure.”

Hubartt’s comment is significant: Goeglein, though he was certainly sloppy and probably dishonest, clearly didn’t know the rules of the game. He could easily have gotten away with what he did by changing the wording ever so slightly, by make clear attribution to the sources of ideas, and by quoting directly at least some of the time. None of this would have been more difficult—nor would it have reduced the “value” of his columns in anyone’s eyes.

What would the difference have been, in anyone’s eye? Very little. But, having been caught, Geoglein is without his White House job.

The second case is more troubling, for the accused brings in questions of race and hints of those of academic integrity:

The college said Dr. [Madonna] Constantine was being penalized, but did not say what the penalty was. A spokeswoman for the college, Marcia Horowitz, said Teachers College did not have set rules governing plagiarism or how it should be punished.

Dr. Constantine, in an e-mail message to faculty and students on Wednesday, called the investigation “biased and flawed,” and said it was part of a “conspiracy and witch hunt by certain current and former members of the Teachers College community.”

“I am left to wonder whether a white faculty member would have been treated in such a publicly disrespectful and disparaging manner,” she wrote.

Constantine is accused of using parts of a student dissertation in her own published articles, without acknowledgement. Though I do not know the particulars, I suspect she is hinting that she knows, as we all do (in academia), that the practice of using unpublished student work unacknowledged in one’s own work for publication is rather more common than it should be. This fact makes the singling out of any one scholar open for accusations of the sort Constantine brings.

Both Geoglein and Constantine have been dishonest, and their sin has been in getting caught—and in not being quite careful enough in their dishonesty.

What’s the difference, after all, in what they’ve done, and that of a journalist or scholar whose publications are impeccable? A few words, that’s all, of attribution. A following of form.

Yes, I understand the importance of ownership in a society such as ours, where personal and group success are made possible (in part) through our rights over our “own” creations. But ownership is, itself, something of a fiction: Our idea of land ownership, for example, is something we’ve made up and codified. It has no reality; its base is simply common agreement that an outsider might easily misunderstand. Just so, we’ve made our rules for ownership of intellectual property, rules that we insiders understand, but the stranger might not. So, it is generally the desperate and naïve, people lacking understanding of how to negotiate the system, who get caught—or the careless. Or, possibly, people like Constantine, operating on the premise that “everyone does it” then screaming discrimination when they get caught (don’t get me wrong: discrimination may be there—I don’t know).

Except in the case of the careless (and I include Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin in this category), there is dishonesty here, true. And it should be treated as that. But, with plagiarism so often so little different from what goes on as standard journalistic or academic activity, couldn’t we change our attitude towards it just a little?

Couldn’t we start seeing it as a question of honesty and, sometimes, even a misunderstanding of the rules governing incorporation of the work of others into one’s own? Can’t we start treating the plagiarist with a little more understanding, recognizing that much of what any of us does, as Lethem and Campbell point out (Lethem even deliberately and playfully plagiarizes in his piece), is little different, ultimately, from what the plagiarist does?

Most journalists and academics, I am sure, will respond with a resounding “No!” But, again as both Campbell and Lethem point out, they have plagiarized themselves. The only difference is that they have done it by the rules.

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