Academia

Steal a Little and They Call You a Thief; Steal a Lot and They Call You King; and Then There's Jim Twitchell

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University of Florida professor of English and advertising Jim Twitchell—an occasional reason contributor over the years—has been unmasked as a serial plagiarist by The Gainesville, Florida Sun:

James Twitchell, a widely published UF professor who writes about consumerism and pop culture, has lifted words verbatim from multiple authors in at least three books published between 2002 and 2007, a Sun investigation found. 

Twitchell initially denied a pattern of plagiarism, but the 64-year-old professor was contrite and ashamed when recently confronted with a larger body of evidence. 

"It's my responsibility to make sure that the words and ideas are my own and, if not, that they are properly credited. In many cases, I have not done this," Twitchell wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "I have used the words of others and not properly attributed them. I am always in a hurry to get past descriptions to make my points, a hurry that has now rightly resulted in much shame and embarrassment. I have cheated by using pieces of descriptions written by others."

More here.

From a reason perspective, what's particularly disappointing is that Twitchell, who contributed four memorable pieces that together made a fun and erudite case for consumer capitalism, ripped off at least two other reason figures: former Editor Virginia Postrel and anthropologist Grant McCracken.

Here's Postrel's reaction:

I was surprised at the extent of Twitchell's word-for-word copying, but I don't consider that his most egregious breach of ethics. Giving your readers inaccurate information because you've changed store names–to hide the source? to make a better story? just for fun?–is worse.

And here's McCracken:

This was witting behavior.  Twitchell sent Postrel the manuscript of Living It Up to ask for a blurp.  She noticed Twitchell's use of the  Diderot Effect and asked him to acknowledge me.  Twitchell did not.  According to Stripling, Twitchell claims that Diderot Effect "has become such common parlance in his area of study that he wasn't even sure who coined it."  Really?  But his use of my exact words tells us he was acquainted with its origin.

We've done a quick scan of Twitchell's work for reason and have no obvious cases of rip-offery and plagiarism from other sources. If we dig that up, we'll make corrections. Twitchell's behavior is not simply indefensible but really fucking stupid: We live in an age where it's tough not to get caught for plagiarizing. And where there's no cost to acknowledging sources—if anything, it's a sign of erudition and plugs an author into a broader network of thinkers.

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  1. I was surprised at the extent of Twitchell’s word-for-word copying, but I don’t consider that his most egregious breach of ethics. Giving your readers inaccurate information because you’ve changed store names–to hide the source? to make a better story? just for fun?–is worse.

  2. Wow, just wow!

    I predict that he will be “writing” for TNR very soon.

  3. Sen. Biden,

    LOL!

  4. There are plenty of people who do unbelievably stupid things where they are basically sure to get caught because of ego.

    Case in point: Elliot “Fucking Steamroller” Spitzer.

  5. There’s really no excuse for professors to fail to use citations properly. After all, they have endless armies of undead slaves… er, I mean, “graduate students”… to do the grunt work. And to lift chunks of text directly? Positively brainless.

  6. Citing your sources is a total hassle. There is nothing more boring than writing endnotes and then have some editor give you a hard time about the book being published in 1978, not ’87. Total bullshit.

  7. Reason was so much better when Postrel was being plagiarized…

  8. Uh, oh. Good thing I never took English at UF (I APed out of mandatory English). But I bet Brian Doherty did.

    I’m surprised that The Gainesville Sun got the story. They were regularly scooped by the student-run Independent Alligator when I was there.

  9. Epi-
    Isn’t that Elliot “Cleveland Steamer” Spitzer?

    and Taktix-
    uhh, drink?

    Really, this is idiocy and (as Epi said) ego (see! I can cite my sources!). Not “…in a hurry,” simply LAZY.

  10. We live in an age where it’s tough not to get caught for plagiarizing.[citation needed]

  11. Like I was saying just the other day, these are the times that try men’s souls. But liberty of the people, by the people and for the people means that we will never ask what our country can do for us. And I have a dream.

  12. We live in an age where it’s tough not to get caught for plagiarizing.[citation needed]

    http://www.google.com

  13. Taktix wins the thread.

  14. Hmmmm . . . I suspect that I should start using citations in my papers now that this “www.google.com” is becoming a big name in the search engine business. Sorry Lycos.

  15. He probably thought he was safe when Turnitin.com didn’t catch anything.

  16. Blue: even that is not an excuse considering all the citation software out there made to help you with that very task. And they’ve been around for a couple decades.

  17. Would this be a good time to mention that most of my posts here are rip-offs of P.J. O’Rourke? I think the rule is you just have to give credit before you get caught.

  18. duncan – now you tell me. I just finished a 10 page paper in APA (ugh) style. Had about 20 references.

  19. There are plenty of people who do unbelievably stupid things where they are basically sure to get caught, because of ego.

  20. Plagiarism may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but I think it is sometimes heartfelt.

  21. BakedPenguin: Let me introduce you to my little friend called Zotero. It’s a firefox addon that lets you organize all the research you are doing and is able to spit it out as footnotes or endnotes and a bibliography if you install the Word or Open Office plugin. If you get your articles from an online database or library Zotero can usually fill out the citation information for you (even works with books off Amazon.com). It can definitely take care of 20 references. Oh, and it’s free.

    Sorry if I sound a bit like a shill… I just wrote a Master’s Thesis myself where I cited over 80 sources. Without Zotero I would have been in hell.

  22. The link didn’t tell me anything more about Twitchell, but who cares! Mudcrutch is reuniting for a new album! http://www.gainesville.com/article/20080429/NEWS/804290317/1006/NEWS/Mudcrutch_reunites_for_album

    Hey, that was worth some plagarism!

  23. “Citation for the Tragically Unhip. | April 29, 2008, 11:51am | #

    “Steal a little and they throw you in jail,
    Steal a lot and they make you king.”

    When *was* the last time Bob Dylan was hip?

    1. Bob Dylan is still the hippest cat around.

  24. “I have used the words of others and not properly attributed them. I am always in a hurry to get past descriptions to make my points, a hurry that has now rightly resulted in much shame and embarrassment. I have cheated by using pieces of descriptions written by others.”

    As a college alum, who faced serious academic sanctions if caught cheating (up to and including expulsion), I find this thread highly amusing.

    /College students aren’t pressed for time?

    //I doubt he gave his students as much lenience as he is asking for.

  25. I have used the words of others and not properly attributed them.

  26. I’m not usually one to eagerly await academic journal symposiums

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