Saturday, April 26, 2003

A thought on plagiarism
Last week I discovered an apparent plagiarism. This was the second such discovery for me. The first, about ten years ago, was an especially blatant case: a book that copied nearly one hundred pages verbatim from an unpublished doctoral dissertation. The new one is a less cut and dried case. A contributor to a libertarian website in Nevada signed his name to a piece that was essentially an abridgement of a Village Voice article of the same week. One third of the paragraphs in the abridged version were enclosed in quotes with the Voice reporter given as a source. The impression given was that the Voice reporter was only one of the website contributor’s sources and that the rest of the article represented original research.

It could be that this was just sloppy work on the part of the second writer. Sloppy citing of sources is one of the traditional defenses for plagiarism, but it could be the truth in this case (in the dissertation case, there was no question that it was anything other than malicious fraud; the original author wasn’t even mentioned in his bibliography). However, it’s not really my business to give or withhold benefit of the doubt. I reported my suspicions to the Voice. As the offended parties, it’s their decision whether or not to take action.

This brings to my mind the case of Sean Kelly at the Agonist. From the discussion that followed, I gather this was a painful loss of innocence for many in Blogistan (I’m new here myself, so I don’t know how common plagiarism is). Along with the predictable idiotic and irrelevant cries that “information wants to be free” was an odd discussion of whether or not bloggers should be bound by journalistic ethics. I say odd because the whole question of whether bloggers are journalists, something else, or something new is entirely misplaced. It’s a valid question and could provide an interesting discussion somewhere; it just has no bearing on plagiarism. As far as plagiarism is concerned there is only one set of ethics and it’s binding on all types of writers. Whether they are involved in creating poetry, software documentation, music, comic books, novels, marketing copy, newspapers, or blogs, plagiarism is theft. And it is the worse kind of theft. Plagiarism is not the mere removal of someone’s property; it is the violation of their soul.

I obviously feel strongly about this and that puts me in a difficult position getting involved again. Though I’m dying to know what happened with the Voice, I don’t really expect to hear anything. In my first case the whole business disappeared under a veil of secrecy brought down by the American Political Science Association (both men worked in PoliSci departments). Most suspected plagiarism is handled with kid gloves because people are afraid of libel lawsuits (or counter lawsuits). This, of course, is ridiculous. One of the founding principles of Anglo-American libel law, and one of the few things we still agree about on this subject, it that the truth is not libelous.

I wish I had a profound closing thought for this, but I don’t. So, remember kiddies: Plagiarism is wrong. Just say “no” to unattributed quotes.

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