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


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.