Taking a page out of another's book
With two bestselling historians caught in plagiarism scandals, some ask, 'Are there new rules for writers in the Internet age?'
Peter Kilduff can't say it enough. When in doubt, throw a couple of quotes around it. Slap on a footnote.
The military historian, who writes a book every two or three years for British publisher Orion Cassell, says he'll pursue the smallest inkling that a rhetorical curlicue is not his own. Slow and careful is how he describes his method. If it turns out that flourish belongs to another writer? "It's not a dishonorable thing to put quotes," he says. "They're so easy to do."
But Kolleen Guy, who is one conclusion away from finishing a book on the history of champagne for the Johns Hopkins University Press, says it takes only one "off" day - out of years of poring over notes - to forget a pair of quotes and damage a reputation.
Such a lapse was Doris Kearns Goodwin's explanation last week for lifting passages almost verbatim from another author without attribution in her 1987 book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys."
Ms. Goodwin took responsibility for the error. Now, she says, she uses a computer to keep better track of her sources and research.
But to some, the confession, coming on the heels of a similar offense by prolific author Stephen Ambrose, was emblematic of a decline in high standards. It also highlighted complex issues linked to certain peculiarities of the Information Age.
The cut-and-paste capabilities of the computer, along with ready access to the rich resources of the Internet, have changed the work habits of practically every writer. Authors, especially historians, are trying harder than ever to appeal to a popular audience and to rush work out to satisfy the voracious appetite for new works. Perhaps most important, a new generation weaned on Napster is aiming electronically charged darts at traditional ideas of ownership.
The result at times is a blurring of traditionally accepted notions of proprietary information and scholarly accuracy. To some, who feel issues of ownership and originality are things of the past, it's much ado about nothing. But traditionalists worry that relaxed standards, time constraints, and pressure from publishers not to "bog down" a text in footnotes will lead more individuals to question the integrity of a broad range of books.
Unlike Goodwin, most writers seem to feel that technology only compounds the risk of error. The ease of cutting and pasting notes may make them less inclined to paraphrase. Others say it's tempting to put off double-checking sources, as the ease of confirming information on the Internet means that, unlike a trip to the library, it can be put off to a free moment - and also easily forgotten.
That's why many writers, like Dr. Guy and even the "always look twice before you cross" Mr. Kilduff, not only believe Goodwin and Mr. Ambrose didn't intend to plagiarize, they empathize. "I can see where it could happen," Kilduff says.
Not everyone, of course, believes in inadvertent word theft. "It strains credulity that these things are accidents," says Steve Weinberg, a nonfiction author whose work includes "Armand Hammer: Untold Story." He says he rereads every single line of his books before publication. The "I hit the wrong button" plea he finds least convincing of all.
Also complicating matters for conscientious writers, especially historians, is a publishing world that increasingly caters to popular audiences. Even academic presses, like Johns Hopkins, are going after a slice of popular pie with what insiders call "bridge books."
The writer who switches from academic monographs to more mainstream writing could be in for footnote culture shock. "Academics live for the footnote," says Tom Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Citation is a lively subtext for scholars, and it's also how they demonstrate they've considered all sources.
But "the more popular the audience, the less popular the footnotes," says William Bishel, an editor at the University of Texas Press in Austin.
Laura Claridge, author of a Norman Rockwell biography released last fall, recalls her first popular book after a career as an English professor. It was also a biography, about artist Tamara de Lempicka. Ms. Claridge says that during one early discussion with her publisher, she witnessed several editors laughing at the fact that another manuscript bore hundreds of endnotes. "They kept pushing me, never to sacrifice truth, but to make the biography more novelistic," she says.
Instead of numbered notes, writers are urged to use a single reference list at the end of the text, Claridge says. Frequent references to secondary sources are frowned on as excess "academic apparatus."
Guy shares a situation she experienced while researching champagne for her first work for a popular audience. "Sometimes you reach your own conclusions and they're similar to someone else's," she says. "In a traditional monograph, I would [make a citation]. In this bridge book, they don't want me to do that. Ideally, I would like to as a scholar, but I understand that my editor doesn't want that."
Ultimately, the burden of accuracy and integrity is on the author, says Mr. Weinberg. "Publishers in general just wash their hands of it and trust authors."
The consequences for writers who err range from public censure to academic criticism. In some cases, a private settlement takes place. Goodwin paid an undisclosed sum to the author she failed to credit properly. Lawsuits are uncommon, but former Beatle George Harrison was successfully sued for plagiarizing with his hit "My Sweet Lord."
Gary Pavela, director of "Judicial Programs" (ethics committee) at the University of Maryland in College Park, says educators could do a lot more to help prevent unintentional plagiarism. "When people get to college, they are generally uninformed what plagiarism is," he says.
The term is commonly defined as the taking of someone else's words or ideas without attribution. But the reality, Pavela says, is a concept with lots of gray areas.
How much must a passage change before it becomes a paraphrasing? In one sense, that was Ambrose's problem. He used passages that closely resembled those of another writer in structure and wording. He footnoted those passages, but failed to put them in quotes.
Then there's the realm of public knowledge: When do ideas and facts become so common they don't require attribution?
At one extreme are those - sometimes identified as postmodernists - who say that originality and ownership of intellectual property are anachronistic hang-ups of Western capitalism. Originality is dead, they say with Nietzschean chutzpah.
And many researchers know that other cultures don't always view ownership of words and ideas in the same way. "I think we're so puritanical about these things," says Guy, who is also a history professor at the University of Texas in San Antonio. She says she can't remember a single scandal in France along the lines of the Ambrose and Goodwin episodes.
But others, like Jerome Kramer, editor of BOOK magazine, are traditionalists. For Mr. Kramer, the grayness of the situation is overestimated. "To me, there is a line that people get pretty intuitively," he says.
Besides, he adds, writers don't need to hunt ruthlessly for original ideas since many authors today are recognized simply for consolidating information.
Patrick Scanlon, associate professor of communication at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, also resists the postmodern tack, but for different reasons.
He acknowledges that a younger generation could be ushering a "whole new way of looking at ownership of information." But he also strongly believes that "there is a great [personal] benefit to finding your own words."
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The word "plagiarism" is infused with the metaphor of theft. Derived from Latin roots, it once referred to kidnapping, often of slaves. Writer Thomas Mallon's famous book on plagiarism is tellingly titled "Stolen Words."
Nevertheless, plagiarism has never been prosecuted as theft, says Stuart Green, a law professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In fact, plagiarism is rarely a matter for the courts, he says. More often, it falls into the hands of disciplinary committees at academic institutions or professional organizations.
The American Historical Association, for example, has a Professional Division that hears complaints about misconduct, including plagiarism. Since its inception almost a decade ago, the division has heard 14 charges of plagiarism. Proceedings are always confidential and only occasionally are findings publicized.
Such silence on plagiarism is not uncommon for academic associations, says William Bishel, a book editor at the University of Texas Press in Austin and a former editor at the American Historical Review. If an organization asserts plagiarism, then the writer may claim defamation, he says: "They are very careful in how they word pronouncements."
Still, last March, the AHA publicly announced its review of a complaint. The organization found that James Mackay's biography, "Alexander Graham Bell: A Life," violated its policy on plagiarism. Arnita Jones, executive director of the AHA, says Mackay was "very careful not to use the same words," but the structure of his story, his chapters, and in some cases his paragraphs, mirrored those of another Bell biography.
Very rarely are "frivolous" accusations brought against a scholar, says Ms. Jones. Nor is the AHA hearing complaints at an increasing rate. Still, many writers and editors agree that the public is generally more sensitized to plagiarism, in part because of technological temptations to the would-be plagiarist.
But that doesn't mean Americans are not willing to forgive and forget. Most people look at plagiarism "as a kind of minor infraction," says Patrick Scanlon of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "Notions of plagiarism and notions of copyright are very culturally bound," he says.
The exceptions, of course, are writers and scholars, for whom such notions are "almost heretical." Which is why it might please some (perhaps Mallon?) that Professor Green is currently researching whether plagiarism meets the criteria of theft in the legal sense.
After all, he says, criminal sanctions are increasingly being authorized in cases involving intellectual property rights.