My subscription to Life expired, but I still have a subscription to Mad.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

plagiarize this!

I read in today's paper that Pultizer Prize-winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, will be the keynote speaker at some local conference. Here we have a plagiarist who has been caught red-handed being treated with kid gloves... almost being honored, so to speak, and probably collecting a nice honorarium for her trouble.

As a writer, nothing bothers me more than plagiarism. Writing is hard work and I strive to write without plagiarizing. Then I see successful writers like Goodwin not only getting away with plagiarizing, but being treated with respect as if nothing ever happened.

It reminds me of the story of a local car wash that I occasionally patronized. Turns out that the owner of the car wash was pushing drugs to schoolchildren from his place of business. He got off on a technicality, but I swore that I would never patronize his business again and I never have. Yet, I see cars lined up at his business everyday and it drives me crazy... why would anybody do business with someone who is trying to push drugs on their children? (Recently, this bum got caught again. I hope that the law did a better job this time and is able to put this guy away for a long time.)

Another plagiarist, Mike Barnacle, lost his job with the Boston Globe because of his crime, but he managed to find work elsewhere. He has a regular stint on the Don Imus radio program where he is treated like a king by Imus' gang of yahoos, who usually treat more honorable people with less respect.

Then there is the case of the bum who wrote the Da Vinci book. An English judge found that the bum did not steal the ideas for his book from another writer, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I guess money talks and that bum walks.

Is there no justice? I must be naive because I just don't get it.

Nonetheless, I will continue do my part: I will not plagiarize and I will not support those who do (or those who support the plagiarists).


  1. Goodwin's case illustrates how difficult it is to accurately write about history, preserving the essence of the moments you're illuminating without simply regurgitating the account of those there or at least "closest" to the action. History is best told when it is more than dates and event, more than wooden pieces moved about on a board; history is best when it conveys the moods of the protagonists and the emotions of the effected.

    Assuming sources are appropriately cited through footnotes or endnotes, as Goodwin seems to have done, we then come to the crux of this issue generating so much bile in your post: if the essence of the moment is lost through paraphrasing thought sufficient to deflect plagiarism accusations, has history, or the reader, been served?

    My concern here is simple: if we put a ridiculously high bar on historical works for plagiarism one of two things will happen: (a) either the works will begin to look more like the results from a database search with element-after-element simply presented wholesale, carefully attributed to its source with an iron-clad mechanism worthy of an accounting firm, entirely absent of the story-telling flow and composition that makes history texts digestible, or (b) works will be "rewrites" of history, where authors not only take license with wording for convenience sake, but are nearly compelled to blur the crisp recounting of the past, substituting instead the meager approximation of the moment to ensure nothing written is so close to the truth as could be considered stolen.

    Nobody here is defending any practical definition of plagiarism; Goodwin certainly isn't. Neither am I defending any particular passages in "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" as "too close" or "not too close" to previous works. Too much has been written on this already, mostly hearsay, without any personal investment to discover the truth for themselves. Instead, I simply caution that it would be ironic if our intent was to make history text better and our actions, instead, made them worse.

    The outrage expressed here seems excessive. Goodwin may not have been as repentant on this as some may have wished. Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, author of "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" had lifted prose accidentally from Megan McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts", but was not met with the ferocity of criticism aimed at Goodwin, a fact I attribute at least partially to her immediate and unreserved admission to the error. In our culture, the perpetrator’s treatment relates as much to his handling of the accusation as to the initial crime.

    Goodwin's case is different than many others, including Barnacle's. Had Barnacle carefully footnoted his liftings from George Carlin's book "BrainDroppings", perhaps a reasonable comparison could be made. Barnacle's other works were also suspect for other reasons, including stealing works from Mike Royko, making up people and quotes, and more. Goodwin's work has never been accused of this level of misconduct.

    As someone who has spent some time writing, I agree that the highest-level of conduct should be expected, but such conduct must be within a context that makes sense and within limits that help produce good work rather than preclude it.

    My 2-cents. Refunds upon demand.

    -- Scott

    For a somewhat dispassionate retrospective, see here:

  2. Now where have I read this b4 :-)

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