The Words You Use Should Be Your Own / Don't Plagiarize or Take On Loan

It’s increasingly easy to detect, the penalties are usually draconian, and there is, as Morrissey once said, always someone with a big nose who knows. So why do columnists, historians, journalists, and politicians still presume that they can get away with a little bit of corner cutting, a tiny bit of time-saving, just-on-the-definitional-cusp plagiarism?

In the past few weeks, plagiarism charges have been levelled against conservative writer Cal Thomas, German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (who has since stepped down), fake democracy advocate Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, and a well-regarded University of Utah professor. The New York Times upbraided reporter Jay Maeder for self-plagiarism, after he was caught recycling material from a 2000 piece he wrote for his former employers at the Daily News. The Thomas offense—which was picked up by Gawker, Media Matters, Salon, Editor and Publisher, and Romenesko—resulted in a number of publications dropping his syndicated column.

In the aftermath of this strange little burst of plagiarism cases, an interesting piece in The New York Times (by D.D. Guttenplan, who wrote a very good account of the David Irving trial) on the different reactions to plagiarism in different European cultures:

“I suspect that if [the zu Guttenberg case] had happened in France there would have been much less of a fuss,” said Wolfgang Mackiewicz, professor of English philology at the Free University of Berlin. “Of course no one will say ‘Plagiarism is fine.’ But in Germany we are perhaps extra-strict,” he said. “In this country a degree is part of a person’s name. It appears on your passport.”

The same is not true in the United Kingdom, it seems. A few weeks ago, in a review for the Wall Street Journal, I pointed out that British historian Dominic Sandbrook, author of the new book Mad As Hell (Knopf), had a curious habit of cannibalizing the work of others, slightly rewriting their on-the-ground, journalistic accounts of events like the Boston busing showdown and the Iranian hostage crisis and passing them off as his own. As I noted in the review, the sources Sandbrook used were footnoted, but the reader would have to consult the original texts to discover that the colorful prose was, in some cases, not entirely his own.

Because of space constraints, I only included three examples of Sandbrook’s shameless recycling in my review, though I found, without really looking, quite a few others. And despite these rather serious infractions—call it plagiarism, call it incredibly lazy “rewriting” of secondary source material—Sandbrook seems to have escaped unscathed. Indeed, the reviews in this country have been overwhelmingly positive (this weekend, Washington Post critic  Jonathan Yardley gave Mad As Hell a positive review, joining The New York Times and dozens of others) and I noticed his own writing has, for the past two weekends, appeared in the (London) Sunday Times.

Perhaps things are different in the U.K., but is this kind of thing not worthy of some type of censure?

"'Why don't you put your one-legged son on a bus for Roxbury?' 'Yeah, let your daughter get bused, so she can get raped!'  'Why don't you let them shoot you, like they shot your brother?' Kennedy's jaw tightened..." - Sandbrook, p. 111 (galley copy)

"'Why don't you put your one-legged son on a bus!' 'Yeah, let your daughter get bused, so she can get raped!' 'Why don't you let them shoot you, like they shot your brother!' Kennedy's face tightened..." J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground, p. 261

His face tightened, his jaw tightened. Here is Sandbrook on the 1976 bicentennial celebrations:

“The biggest party on the nation’s history began at 4:31 a.m. on Sunday, July 4, 1976, on Mars Hill in northeastern Maine. As the first rays of the rising sun struck American soil, National Guardsmen fired a fifty-gun salute and raised the Stars and Stripes.” - Sandbrook, p. 179

And Time magazine’s contemporaneous account of the same event:

“The big party officially began on northeastern Maine's Mars Hill. It was there, at 4:31 a.m., that the rays of the rising sun first struck U.S. soil on July 4, and 550 local potato farmers and tourists cheered wildly as National Guardsmen fired a 50-gun salute and raised an American flag.”

And so on.

But Guttenplan is right; there are different standards in different cultures for this type of (allow me to be generous) laziness. So will Knopf, one of America’s most venerable imprints, publisher of so many terrific books, address Sandbrook’s "methodology" in the paperback edition of Mad as Hell

Headline reference: Keats and Yeats are on your side!

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  • DNS||

    politiciansstill

    Editor please.

  • ||

    Not a big fan of Thomas. But the media matters piece on him smelled more like a hit piece than a report. His failure to give credit was not plagiarism. It doesn't smell good, but the information that was in the NYT story was publically available. Thomas could have attributed it to the various agencies and mentioned that it was reported in the NYT and no problem.

  • ||

    "So why do columnists, historians, journalists, and politicians still presume that they can get away with a little bit of corner cutting, a tiny bit of time-saving, just-on-the-definitional-cusp plagiarism?"

    I suspect it's a generational thing.

    Back in the old days, when you were coming up in school, for someone to discover your plagiarism, they'd need to know or pull the same book you did out of the library--and read the section you didn't bother to footnote?

    Nowadays, detecting plagiarism is easier. Many colleges run much of what students turn in through Turnitin, or some such service, so the next generation is just less likely to plagiarize--they're certainly more likely to get caught.

    The internet acts like a giant Turnitin service--all those millions of eyes scrutinizing everything these old timers write, and the older generation, many of whom may have been serial plagiarizers for decades, are just now getting caught because they're not accustomed to having their work so heavily scrutinized.

    I'm a big believer in falliblism, especially the part about things being more likely to be true relative to being more heavily scrutinized.

    The older generation should be put on notice. All you lazy intellectuals, blow hards, plagiarists, etc.--your days are numbered!

  • Crotchety old newsman||

    Someday this interthingie fad will die out. Just you watch.

  • ||

    Yeah, I think this is one case where grade inflation may be completely justified.

    It's certainly changed our assumptions about authority.

    What they printed in your local newspaper used to settle an argument; now printing it in a newspaper just gets the argument started.

    I don't think standards were better back then--I think they just never got caught. People had encyclopedias, but how could you fact check current events in the past?

    More scrutiny means more better news.

  • ||

    Lies!!!!

    I ran part of your text in google and found out you plagiarized the INTERNET!!!!

    http://www.google.com/#sclient.....rism,+they'd+need+to+know+or+pull+the+same+book+you+did+out+of+the+library--and+read+the+section+you+didn't+bother+to+footnote?&aq;=&aqi;=&aql;=&oq;=&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.&fp=76443b15eee2b0a7

  • Rrabbit||

    Copy-Karl Googleberg is an extreme case
    o very extensive plagiarism, basically more that half of his PhD thesis wasn't by himself
    o not only had he plagiarized, he abused taxpayers money - parts of his thesis had been copied from papers written by the government's research service on his behalf
    o one of the requirements for the PhD thesis is that the applicant makes a written statement that we wrote it all himself and used no sources other than those explicitly listed
    o instead of simply admitting it, he lied multiple times and only ever admitted what had already been proven

  • skr||

    Don't forget the people trying to claim trademark on "urban homesteading". Apparently they lifted whole text from another author's book.

  • skr||

  • ||

    So why do columnists, historians, journalists, and politicians still presume that they can get away with a little bit of corner cutting, a tiny bit of time-saving, just-on-the-definitional-cusp plagiarism?

    IP for thee but not for me. I suppose journalists are legally allowed to pirate movies/music/software, because, like, they're the press or something so it's not stealing. Right?

  •  ||

    It's a moot point. Plagiarism is intellectual property theft, and "libertarians" don't believe in intellectual property. It if doesn't exist, there is no ethical dilemma in stealing it. Problem solved!

  •  ||

    PS
    Copyright 2011, Reason Magazine

  • ||

    You're such a moron. It's really quite amusing that you would pretend that there's a monolithic view amongst libertarians about IP. Well, amusing and utterly mendacious. And unsurprising.

  •  ||

    I don't care what you think.

  • ||

    Awesome response, dude. Like, genius level. Very fitting with your other comments.

  • ||

    The better response would've involved something where IP meant "Idiot Poster", and he somehow turned that on you.

  • ||

    I'm pro-IP rights, and I'm a libertarian. On the other hand, as I've said here before, I think the dial is turned up much too high on IP protection.

  • cynical||

    Libertarians do believe in fraud, and selling something you mostly copied as your own original work is just that.

  • Paul||

    “Of course no one will say ‘Plagiarism is fine.’ But in Germany we are perhaps extra-strict,”

    So when did Germans become so uptight and strict?

  • Almanian||

    It is out of character, isn't it?

  • ||

    Hermes: We can't compete with Mom! Her company is big and evil! Ours is small and neutral!

    That Guy: Switzerland is small and neutral! We're more like Germany, ambitious and misunderstood!

    Amy: Look, everyone wants to be like Germany, but do we really have the pure strength of will?

  • Jerry||

    Ha, I'm just dying to see a Downfall parody where Hitler takes on Guttenberg's plagiarism.

  • Almanian||

    Well, when I finished writing "The Great Gatsby", I remember telling Updike, "You just KNOW someone will try to take credit for this."

    And I'll be goddammned if that F. Scott Fitzwhatshisname doesn't try to do just that. The nerve!

    I did manage to recover for some time after penning "Catcher in the Rye", but that was only a temporary respite.

    Well, off to make my final edits to "Dune."

  • ||

    I invented the omelet.

  • DNS||

    I knew Almanian is really Alan Vanneman.

  • Anal Vanneman||

    STOP MISSPELLING MY NAME!

  • ||

    In some ways, just changing a word here and there makes it worse. It adds an element of intentionality and premeditation.

  • Jason||

    Nice Smiths reference

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    The New York Times upbraided reporter Jay Maeder for self-plagiarism, after he was caught recycling material from a 2000 piece he wrote for his former employers at the Daily News.

    Uh, huh?

  • ||

    Why is it bad to copy what you yourself wrote?

  • sounds real good||

    ...and then produce the text from whence was ripped
    Some dizzy whore, 1804!

  • ||

    For the longest time i thought that there were only so many words and possible combination that everything must have already been said so everyone is guilty of plagiarism.

    If i had read Jorge Luis Borges labyrinths as a teenager i think i would have become some sort of mad genius.

  • Resto Druid FTW||

    The title is from a Morrissey song, "Cemetary Gates" I believe.

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