Sunday, April 27, 2008

A high-profile academic plagiarism case

Virginia Postrel writes a damning post about the apparent serial plagiarism by an English professor, James Twitchell, of her and others' work.

Plagiarism is an academic sin that probably seems harmless at the time of commission, yet destroys reputations. That's even true when the sin was committed as an undergraduate (Joe Biden) or accidentally, as the result of juggling too many sources without well distinguishing between them (Doris Kearns Goodwin).

And it's easy to accidentally appear to plagiarize: A few months ago, when going over some page proofs, I noticed that the copyeditor had taken some of my block quotes and put them into standard paragraph style. I'm glad that I caught the error, which could easily have resulted in a plagiarism charge (if people actually read my work widely).

But that does not seem to be the case with Twitchell's work, which not only closely paraphrases passages without attribution, but slightly modifies them to enter into faint dialogue with the original sources. The dialogue is not obvious when you read the passage, but becomes clear when you lay it beside the source. How much more productive the dialogue would be if it were open rather than hidden.

Sometimes when I talk about plagiarism to my students, I tell them: If professors catch you plagiarizing, we don't just think it's a character issue. We take it as an indicator that perhaps you're just not college material. There are several honorable and skilled professions out there that do not involve referencing and modifying others' intellectual work; if you have the urge to plagiarize, consider keeping your integrity and switching to one of those professions instead. Perhaps I should make that speech a standard part of my grad classes too.

Dynamist Blog: If You're Going to Steal My Prose, At Least Keep My Facts
Blogged with the Flock Browser

No comments: