Hit & Run

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

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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!