No one's saying that Scottish author James Mackay writes bad books. They're just saying that the books he writes aren't his.
A reviewer for The New York Times recently discovered that passages in Mr. MacKay's new biography of John Paul Jones bare an uncanny resemblance to passages in a biography by Samuel Eliot Morison in 1959. While Mackay denies any wrongdoing, The Atlantic Monthly Press has decided not to release the book.
To all the honest, but unpublished authors out there, it must be bitter news indeed to hear that this is the fourth book of MacKay's to come under fire for plagiarism. How can such a writer keep getting published?
In a world sagging under tens of thousands of new titles a year, the answer should be obvious: An ever-shrinking number of publishers is finding it harder to edit and check a rapidly rising number of books.
The Internet poses an even greater challenge along these lines. With so many Web sites posting such a wide mixture of stories, reports, and book-length manuscripts, consumers are constantly being challenged to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate. Just as teachers are now permanently on guard against a term- paper downloaded from a paper-writing "service."
In the long history of writing, concerns about plagiarism and originality are relatively new. After all, no one was upset that Shakespeare "stole" the plots of most of his plays from other authors.
But the new concepts of intellectual property and democracy that arose in the 18th century made such concerns of paramount importance. To have an incentive for their labor and creativity, authors need to own and control their work.
Authors and citizens will need to find better ways to digest the prolific output of the Internet. Anyone with a computer can make his words (or someone else's) accessible to the entire world - with little cost and no independent editorial oversight.
In such a cacophony of voices, careful editors and publishers can provide an increasingly crucial service. If they don't, the brave new world of the Internet will take us back to the Tower of Babel.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society