Thursday, June 25, 2009

Everybody plagiarizes.

[Six months of blogsilence, and now I can't shut up. . . .]

Every smart, responsible writer works very hard not to plagiarize—not only because one doesn't want to be caught and punished but also because smart writers want to demonstrate the entire conversation they're participating in. And also because writers want others to see how hard they've worked to understand their topic. Etc. There's a host of good reasons for trying not to plagiarize.

But especially given the incredibly wide range of textual activities categorized as "plagiarism," every active writer from sources occasionally crosses the line. Really, can any of us swear that we have NEVER patchwritten?—never paraphrased too closely from the language of the source? That once we've acknowledged a source from which we're heavily drawing, we've ALWAYS made clear throughout the text exactly where we're working from that source and where we're not? How can those of us employing research assistants be sure that abstracts they produce are not themselves plagiarized? What about working with coauthors—what if one of them screws up and you don't know it? Etc. There's a host of ways that writers can plagiarize even when they're trying not to. Fully pulling apart a text from its source is a tough thing to do.

And then there is the publishing process. I am right now in the mad rush leading up to the book's being in the printer's hands, and it's terrifying as I try to make sure everything is as it should be. This is a moment where a host of mistakes could be made and could go to print. Plus there are other contributors to the book, good people all, who've done wonderful work. But even though their contributions are authored under their names, it's my name alone on the cover of the book. What if one of them crossed that dark, wavy line? And what about all the revisions that my editors have suggested?

Hence my blog title: everybody plagiarizes. I say that not in order to excuse plagiarism; plagiarism is bad. Rather, I say it as a way of arguing that we need to get a grip about plagiarism and not have a cosmic meltdown over the likes of a single unmarked quotation.

So if everybody plagiarizes, what happens when the plagiarism is detected? The almost-universal excuse from published scholars is "bad research notes." In Doris Kearns Goodwin's case, the excuse was "bad research assistants." At Harvard, for cryin out loud.

But in Chris Anderson's case, the response is to say "yes, I did." And then to explain how it happened.

Excuse me, but a hurricane of fresh air just blew across my desk.


bonnie lenore kyburz said...

that mighty wind felt mighty refreshing. brilliant, as always.

Tom Biel said...

Hello Ms. Howard,

We, students in a teacher's seminar at UW-Madison were assigned a chapter from your book Standing in the Shadows, chapter two. We posted blogs, on blogspot, about your chapter (I'd link that for you but don't know how from comment box). Anyway, excellent food for thought. We are all debating today what plagiarsim now means in this day and age, talking about appopriation, sampling, mixing, and digital writing and what is true authorship. As one who sees himself as a gatekeeper, I keep watch at the gate of authentic author--or at least try to. Perhaps that is like trying to dam the ocean. It was nice reading your article and good luck with your new book.

Tom Biel

Rebecca Moore Howard said...

Thanks, Tom! Glad to know I'm helping move the conversation along. The topic is complex, and collectively we know so very little--as your list of subtopics indicates.

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