Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Good fear and bad

The Chronicle has unveiled more cases of plagiarism in the academy, and asks in its headline: "How Many More Are Out There?" The story implicitly speculates that there are many, many more, crawling underfoot "like cockroaches," in the memorable words of Peter Charles Hoffer, quoted in the article.

Where have all the exterminators gone? They are busy, short-handed, and slightly afraid, according to Henry at Crooked Timber: "The reluctance to take serious action against plagiarists isn’t a conspiracy -- it’s due to a combination of a lack of resources, a reluctance to get involved in controversy, and, perhaps, a feeling of 'there but for the grace of God …' (it’s every academic’s nightmare to be accused of plagiarism because of carelessness or sloppy footnoting)." Henry's right, I think, and the nightmare only grows more vivid every day. (Witness Ralph Luker's recent impulse to footnote himself, for fear of being strung up with other "hapless historians.") As cases multiply and careers are ruined, all before the leering eyes of an academic public, is it necessarily true that the incentive to report plagiarism increases? It puts the fear of God in academics, to be sure, but that might also sharpen the feeling that "there but for the grace of God go I."

I once discovered what I seriously believed to be a case of plagiarism by a professor (whom I still respect). There were a few paragraphs in a journal article that seemed to be copied, with minimal editing, from a book that I had been assigned in a course taught by this professor. The book was also cited in the article. There could be no question, then, that he or she was aware of the original text: the only question was whether the copying was a result of malicious intent or of sloppiness in taking notes. Armed with my overactive conscience (I once called the cable company twice to tell them that I was receiving free cable; go on, wag your head, point and laugh), I took the case confidentially to another professor (whom I still respect). The advice I received was that it might not be worth the trouble and controversy of reporting the case. Scholars have a certain tolerance for such honest mistakes, I was told, because they know from their own experience how easily they can happen. I did not report.

Perhaps some would say that this professor failed in his or her obligation to police plagiarism, and that I made the wrong decision by sitting on what I had found. At the time, I still had my doubts. But if I'm honest, the longer I have been a scholar, the more I have understood where that advice was coming from. Does a fear that I might make the same mistake now hamper my sensitivity to the mistake in others?

I'm not sure. I'm not suggesting that I don't know plagiarism to be morally wrong, or that I worry I will somehow accidentally do something like steal another person's dissertation. Those things don't "just happen." But if I'm honest, I'm silently worried about accidents that do happen, for fear that an academy hopping mad about malignant forms of plagiarism will turn its ire on me. Some of that fear, no doubt, is a good thing. It's one of the internal controls that helps prevent the outright cases of intellectual theft from happening. And it makes us more careful in the archives. As Elliot J. Gorn wrote in the March 2004 Journal of American History:
... there is the haunting feeling that more shoes might drop, even our own. Puritan-like, we look into our hearts: "Was I really as assiduous, as careful in the archives as I should have been? Did I fail, O God of Documents, in my slothfulness or my overweening pride, to put everything in quotes, to cite all sources accurately, to represent the evidence fairly?" Such uneasiness keeps us honest. We search for the blackness within because self-scrutiny is the scholar-pilgrim's high road to salvation. What begins as neurosis ends in a reasonable approximation of integrity. At least most of the time.
Am I alone in having prayed this prayer to the God of Documents? It could be that the jeremiads against plagiarism that continue to pour forth from the academy are slowly turning us all into sinners in the hands of that angry God. We come to feel that all of us are "always exposed," as Jonathan Edwards warned his congregants, "to sudden unexpected destruction." True, this may have the effect of making us more conscientious scholars, "Puritan-like" in fact. But the same fear that produced the starchy moral rectitude of the Puritans also produced their witch hunts. How do we draw the line between the good fear and the bad?

I say all this merely to wonder aloud about the best way of dealing with the rash of plagiarism -- the best method of "pest control," if you will. Is it to make sure that we increase reportage, that we expose every sinner to sudden destruction, "shock and awe"? Or do such fiery sermons actually have the opposite effect? Do they make us the more afraid of pointing our fingers at suspected sinners for fear that we are guilty too? Is constant fear and trembling the best medicine, or does it inspire good scholars like my former professor simply to fall back on an antinomian doctrine of supervenient grace? All I know is that I am appropriately afraid of plagiarizing. I'm practically shaking in my boots. ("Have mercy, O God of Documents ...") But I don't know how far the boundaries of the good fear extend.

Collective Improvisation:
If you really want to take your fears to new heights, consider Helen Keller's experience with plagiarism accusations, summarized in this article* [subscription required] by Georgina Kleege. As a student Keller wrote a fairy tale called "The Frost King." According to the article:

"Readers soon noticed that it closely resembled, in plot, imagery, and phrasing, a story called "The Frost Fairies" published a generation earlier. Keller denied ever having read the story. There was no copy of it in the library at Perkins or at the Keller home in Alabama.

After a lengthy investigation, during which Keller was questioned for over two hours by a panel of Perkins teachers who seemed hostile and suspicious to her, it was determined that she was not guilty of deliberate plagiarism. Rather, Keller retained a detailed memory of the story from three-and-a-half years earlier, when a friend of Sullivan's read it to her. Although at that time she was not familiar with all the vocabulary in the story, the gist of the plot and a pattern of imagery stayed with her, reemerging three years later as if from her own imagination." (103)

So, in addition to worries about solid archival work and good note-taking, you can add a worry about paraphrasing closely a work read long ago - without even realizing it.

*Full citation: Georgina Kleege, "The Helen Keller who Still Matters", Raritan 24:1 (Summer 2004): 100-112 

Posted by aj

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/22/2004 04:34:00 PM : Permalink  

That's precisely what I mean. The other day I had a sudden breakthrough on a section of my dissertation. It involved the use of an extended metaphor about the "pole star" that guided abolitionists who crossed the Atlantic to cooperate with other reformers.

Pleased by this felicitous literary device, I then began to read through some secondary articles that needed to go in the footnotes. Lo and behold, as I'm reading the article, I discover someone using the exact same metaphor of a "polar star" for abolitionists! Now, I had not read this particular article in months -- probably over half a year -- and since I clearly thought of the metaphor in my writing before seeing it in this article, I was now faced with citing the article in the very section in which I wanted to use the phrase.

Rationally, there is no reason to be afraid about this: I know I'm not plagiarizing by using the metaphor. And besides, I would argue that such a common metaphor cannot really be claimed as one author's property anyway. But because the fear that plagiarism induces can be so vivid, the discovery of this coincidence actually gave me pause.

Who knows? Maybe, like Keller, I remembered reading that metaphor somewhere in the recesses of my mind ...  

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/22/2004 06:40:00 PM : Permalink  

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