May 15, 2006

Is Mark Steyn guilty of plagiarism?

I described the facts in an earlier post. It seems clear to me that in Steyn's 550-word discussion of Dan Brown's style, he took the terminology, most of the basic ideas, all of his three examples (in order), a couple of turns of phrase, and his punch line from one of Geoff Pullum's Language Log posts. He credits Pullum by name (though he gives no link or any other sort of source citation) for the term "anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier", but not for the rest of his borrowings. I promised to give my opinion later on, and this is a first installment.

When an undergraduate in one of my classes turns in a paper with a similar amount of uncredited copying, I ask him or her to come see me. We're not talking about something copied wholesale from a published paper or from an internet paper mill -- that would simply get a grade of zero and a referral to the Office of Student Conduct for further action. We're talking about a case where some basic ideas, a series of quotations or examples, and some key turns of phrase are taken from another source without explicit credit.

After laying out the facts, I'd ask for a response, which at first is usually a denial or an excuse. One of the commonest excuses is "But that source is in my bibliography/footnotes!" In that case, I would explain how Stephen Ambrose was accused of plagiarizing Thomas Childers, despite the fact that Ambrose gives Childers "a mention in the bibliography and four footnotes" (according to Fred Barnes' Daily Standard article of January 1, 2002, "Stephen Ambrose, Copycat" which also gives several examples of the copying involved). I'd also show them the coverage of the case where Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarizing Lynne McTaggart, starting with what Timothy Noah wrote in a Slate article from 1/22/2002 headlined "Doris Kearns Goodwin, liar: First she plagiarized, then she lied about it":

Did Doris Kearns Goodwin commit plagiarism? "Absolutely not," she tells Boston Globe reporter Thomas C. Palmer Jr. "There were extensive footnotes.'' Chatterbox has had it with brand-name historians who pretend that the rules allow you to steal someone else's sentences (for examples of Goodwin's theft, click here) provided that you supply a footnote. This is not a gray area.

And I'd urge them to read the rest of the Ambrose/Goodwin coverage, in the hopes of persuading them that more is at stake than just their grade in one undergraduate class. These days, I might take this hypothetical student through the sad tales of Kaavya Viswanathan and William H. Swanson as well, to drive home the lesson about the consequences of plagiarism (though those were cases where no reference of any kind was given, even an inadequate one).

Since students often remain convinced that what they did was OK, since they rearranged words a bit or paraphrased some of the material rather than quoting it, I give them a copy of the special report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, posted 12/17/2004, "What is plagiarism?" I might ask them to read these two paragraphs out loud:

Outright copying of someone else's writing is only the most clear-cut form of plagiarism. The Modern Language Association provides a succinct but sweeping catalog of varieties of plagiarism in its MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers: "A writer who fails to give appropriate acknowledgment when repeating another's wording or particularly apt term, paraphrasing another's argument, or presenting another's line of thinking is guilty of plagiarism."

The term "plagiarism" applies to "the imitation of structure, research, and organization," notes Laurie Stearns, a copyright lawyer in "Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Process, Property, and the Law," an essay appearing in the California Law Review in 1992. "Even facts or quotations can be plagiarized," writes Ms. Stearns, "through the trick of citing to a quotation from a primary source rather than to the secondary source in which the plagiarist found it in order to conceal reliance on the secondary source." In the sciences, "accusations of plagiarism may center on the content of discoveries or the interpretation of data rather than on specific phraseology."

I also try to make sure that the hypothetical student understands that plagiarism is not at all the same thing as copyright violation. As the Chronicle article explains

If Smith copies a chapter from a book by Jones without permission, then the rights of the copyright holder have been violated. But suppose Smith paraphrases the chapter, argument by argument. In that case, Smith will have copied the ideas, but not the expression, of a copyrighted work. If no credit is given, then Jones has every reason to complain about being plagiarized. Still, assuming that Smith has been careful not to borrow any of the language of the original, it will not be an infringement of copyright.

In his essay "Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights," appearing in the Hastings Law Review in 2002, Stuart P. Green, a professor of law at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, writes that copyright law "protects a primarily economic interest that a copyright holder has in her work ... whereas the rule against plagiarism protects a personal, or moral, interest."

I might also try to engage their moral sense with a discussion of why plagiarism is ethically wrong, based on ideas like those that Jonathan Baron lays out in his blog post "Plagiarism as probabilistic harm". I try to explain that I don't think that they're an evil person, but what they did was wrong. In order to try to engage their sense of self-preservation, I underline (as I did at greater length here) that plagiarism in academic and journalistic writing is one of those sins against the social order that our culture often takes seriously, like murder, rather than one of those that it usually excuses, like extramarital sex.

After all of this discussion, what happens next depends on how the student reacts. Usually we have a tense but friendly discussion, at the end of which they agree to do the paper over again. If their first and last reaction were instead to be "I did nothing wrong -- see you in court!", I'd refer the case to my university's Office of Student Conduct and let them sort it out. I'm happy to say that this has never happened to me.

Unfortunately, this is roughly what happened to Geoff Pullum in the case under discussion. As I understand it, the sequence of actions and reactions was something like this. First, a Language Log reader emailed Geoff to tell him that he was mentioned by name in a Steyn piece (no reference given). Geoff googled Steyn and found the Steyn Online web site. He was expecting to see just some passing mention in a piece about something else, but found that Steyn's review of The Da Vinci Code seemed to be developed entirely out of his ideas. Thinking initially that it was merely a piece on the web site, Geoff wrote to Steyn and asked him if he could modify it with links to credit the Language Log pieces that had influenced it. A short time later, after learning that links were now out of the question because the piece was in final form had already appeared in print in Maclean's (the link from Steyn Online actually pointed to the Maclean's web site), and having had no immediate reply, Geoff wrote again to ask for an acknowledgment and some public attempt to to clarify the source of the ideas and examples. At no time did he mention legal action, copyright, or courts, because it was always clear to him (as it is to me) that this is not a matter to which copyright law could possibly be applied.

Steyn's assistant responded (and I paraphrase rather than quoting here) <<Steyn did nothing wrong -- see you in court if you dare to take this further. >>

Mark Steyn is, of course, not a student. So given his attitude, I think it's appropriate to refer his case to the court of public opinion. Make of it what you will.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 15, 2006 11:02 AM