Plagiarism is Boring as Well as Unethical

On Sunday, Salon.com had an essay on the recent Fareed Zakaria plagiarism case. For those of you who don’t follow American middlebrow news sources with a passion, the story is that Zakaria—a regular commentator and columnist for CNN and TIME magazine—lifted a paragraph about the book Gunfight almost wholesale from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore to include in his column. (See the comparison at NewsBusters, here.) Zakaria’s been suspended from both jobs, and has published one of those “I shouldn’t have done this, though I make no attempt to explain why I did” apologies.

The authors of the Salon piece, two history professors from Louisiana State University, use Zakaria as the jumping-off point for an attack on big-budget popular history and the non-historians who do it. I’m happy to see them get in some punches on the genre’s recycling of what we already know as “Great New Discoveries!” but I don’t think the argument that the problem is a lack of professional historical training is the problem here. Journalists know to give credit when credit is due (like those ubiquitous “additional reporting” tags) and people with doctorates in other fields (Zakaria received a PhD in Government from Harvard) know what plagiarism is. Plus, there are plenty of people with doctorates in history who are happy to write books that recycle old platitudes as “Great New Discoveries!”

I think the bigger problem is the extent to which the general readership has very little idea how much work it takes to develop something original, and why plagiarism is not just an ethical transgression but also a mark of boring work. Did Zakaria really not have anything to say about Gunfight that Lepore didn’t?

One of the big reasons readers don’t distinguish between the in-depth and the superficial is that they don’t realize how difficult that in-depth research is. I remember when I was planning a research trip to Britain just how surprised some of my friends were that nineteenth-century prime ministerial papers weren’t online, and these were grad students in physics: people working on the same university campus as me. As I experienced in my latest 6 month gap with no university library access, most serious scholarship is still behind paywalls or up in the stacks. Even if you only want basic secondary sources, it takes time to uncover what you need.

I’m not ranting here that everything should be freely and easily available on the internet, though it would be nice. My point is that getting dug into a topic beyond the most superficial level is work. It’s not quick, it’s not easy, and it’s not at anyone’s fingertips.

When someone lifts Jill Lepore’s summary of Adam Winkler’s Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, a book that itself is based on the research of hundreds of other scholars, we’re not just talking about an ethical transgression. We’re also talking about a situation where dipping a toe in the water gets presented as deep thinking. Look at the TIME column. Aside from the Winkler-citing paragraphs in the middle, the only sources worth naming are New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist George Will. Does this sort of thing even count as writing about gun control?

There’s nothing wrong with admitting that the world is filled with smart people who do smart work. Fareed Zakaria, up against a deadline, could have told people to read Lepore’s article (it’s available online here), or Winkler’s book, or Randy Roth’s American Homicide. There’s really no shortage of reading, even good reading, about the issue. It’s really too bad he took the road he did instead.

(UPDATE: Why I left the sciences out when talking about research, and why it would be nice if “humanities journalism” was a profession here)

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29 thoughts on “Plagiarism is Boring as Well as Unethical

  1. Very well written post. And, I think you are right on target. It takes time and hard work to create something original and meaningful. Many people just don’t want to put in the effort (or perhaps don’t know how?), but they still want the credit. As a college level educator, I often have to deal with plagairism and cheating and it is very frustrating and disheartening.

    • I agree with you. I don’t understand why some people don’t respect the right of paternity, it is like a theft, it is not respectful for the authors. They don’t understand that you can’t have your cake and eat it, they prefer the ease of plagiarism whatever the consequences for the original authors, it is a really selfish way of thinking. I think it is a social problem, some people want to get everything as soon as possible without worrying about others, the more the society promotes the success without any effort, the more people will find the ways leading to it attractive. I use the Creative Commons licenses, I’m glad when people attribute my work in the manner I specify, I don’t demand them not to copy, I expect them to respect me as a human being, nothing less.

  2. Hear, hear. It seems to me that in the internet age plagiarism is becoming more and more accepted.
    How many posts are “reblogged” without permission from or credit to their author? Conversely, how many blogs use images that are original or properly licensed and credited?

  3. Goodness! I just wrote a post on plagiarism myself today for my site. I think we basically agree on the perniciousness of not attributing something you borrow, and there was also a recent discussion of creativity and plagiarism on another site on WordPress as well. I probably didn’t cover the subject as well as you did, since I basically just retailed what I’ve learned in academia and in creative writing classes. The other fellow is a creative writer taking graduate courses who feels that some degree of borrowing is natural in creative fields, but I don’t think he’s talking about wholesale lifting of ideas without crediting a source or sources; he seems to be just trying to encourage people to read good authors and develop their own ideas on the basis of what they read and encounter there. I don’t usually self-advertise, or at least I don’t do it often, but if you’re interested in our discussions, you can find me at http://creativeshadows.wordpress.com/ and him at http://thelivingnotebook.wordpress.com/ . He was Freshly Pressed too, about 3 weeks or so ago. From what I’ve heard you and others say about plagiarism in journalism, I think it seems to happen fairly often, and there are always serious consequences and fallout, though I’m really surprised to hear that Zakaria did it. Maybe because journalism is so topical and there’s a faster turnover rate of ideas there also, the consequences seem more severe. I agree, too, with your idea that getting together as many sources as possible is probably a good idea when a person intends to write an article on a subject of the sort that occurs in journalism. Anyway, you’ve done a good post. Congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed!

  4. It’s amazing that Zakaria thought he could get away with lifting a paragraph from another widely-read journalist in today’s world. Hell, probably three hundred years ago at least one person would have noticed that one guy’s pamphlet looked really similar to another’s.

    • Yeah, this is what I find particularly astonishing. I’m a teacher in Thailand… the kids are absolutely TERRIBLE for copying and myself and the other foreign teachers in the school seem to be the only ones that mind (no really… kids blatantly copy notebooks in the classroom, in the hallway, in the canteen… no other teachers even bat an eye).

      Even with kids I always just ask them, ‘Do you think I’m stupid?!’ and proceed to read their identical papers to the class. For a professional to commit a not-so-different transgression just really makes you wonder how he was able to rationalize his decision.

  5. I think you are right on point here. It is a struggle to find something original to write at times and if we are not here to share our own opinions as journalists, why are we here at all? I completely agree that it is an important tool to ensure you have gathered as many sources as possible when covering a topic. There is value in quoting sources to give authority to your reporting. There is no excuse, however, for blatant plagiarism. Give credit where credit is due. On that note, this is an excellent post.

  6. Writers commit plagiarism. Sportspeople use dope. It’s something that people do to get attention, either by being acknowledged for a good write or a win or if all else fails, the controversial attention. Who will remember it anyway in a year’s time?

    • As I see it, plagarism is a euphemism for stealing. In writing it’s taking somebody else’s hard slog and making it your own with hardly any effort involved. In sports. to use your analogy, it’s taking a prize that rightly belongs to someone else who has worked for it, sometimes for years. Whether or not we remember it in a year’s time isn’t the point. Stealing isn’t acceptable and that’s where the focus belongs.

      • Yes, I would say that plagiarism is not just a euphemism for stealing, it’s stealing outright. And just as sports figures are hurting themselves as well as other people by doping, so plagiarisers are hurting themselves. They are depriving themselves of learning opportunities and of the learned skills that come from using their own “mental muscles” to achieve goals. Flabby thinking can be just as offensive as flabby muscles.

  7. Excellent post. I also just wrote about apparent plagiarism in fiction to go with two free Kindle ebook promotions this weekend: http://lisascullard.wordpress.com/p-a-sevents/

    Particularly with factual document plagiarism, it’s more than just ‘a lot of work’ that goes into these things – it’s often an individual’s life passion, their bread-and-butter – and sometimes their own personal or family experiences being referenced.

    Knowing how it feels just perceiving plagiarism of one’s own work, it’s like having your soul taken away without your consent.

  8. Plagiarism is unethical. But chiefly it is stupid, because it indicates exposes the writer as either indolence or lacking original thought. Far better, if someone else has written something you wish you had written first, and you think it’s germane to your point, simply quote them. A plaudit never goes astray and is absolutely legitimate.

    • This is excellent advice. If someone else has said it first, it’s only courtesy (and good sense) to give him or her credit for doing so. And as you also point out, very few people are likely to mind being quoted and getting credit for the thought. We can all used a little free and good publicity.

  9. Insightful post – and you’re right. I’ve had issues with some of the books I write being plagiarised in the past. The problem, for me anyway, has been doing anything about it – on the last occasion my approach to the plagiarist was ignored, and I couldn’t justify the cost of a solicitor to chase it further. It’s not hard for people to be courteous, and I find it somewhat dismaying when they are not.

  10. I think it’s a really interesting question to pose about plagiarism – the extent to which scholarly articles have written about so much, on such a diverse range of issues and question in society. Its hard for students, authors and journalists and others writing pieces to develop something original without overlapping into a realm of plagiarism.

  11. Great post, yup. I think Zakaria frequently offers some great insights with his work so this is a real shame. If anything, the episode speaks to the frantic nature of our modern media and its need to provide a constant stream of “content” regardless of the quality (as you suggest above). I personally don’t buy his assertion that he’s never employed a ghostwriter.

  12. Geez! And I would be pissed if someone lifted one of my 100 word flash fictions with no research at all! There is no excuse for plagiarism.
    In the art world and use of the internet, it is rampant and people are so ignorant.

  13. Kids aren’t being taught how to research papers. The internet has spoiled them and created a generation with no idea how to do actual research. I can remember having to go to the library and check out books in order to write my papers for my high school English class. Kids these days just use the internet and copy and paste. It’s sad, but it is no excuse for stealing someone else’s work.

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