Another One From the “People Who Really Should Know Better” File

University of Florida English professor James Twitchell caught plagiarizing others in his books. His is excuse? “Fluke acts of sloppiness.” Well, yes, it is sloppy to lift whole paragraphs of other people’s work without attribution, but as the linked article suggests, when you do a lot of it, it’s not really a fluke. Writers should be vigilant against plagiarism in any event, but I’ll go on record saying that authors who are also professors of English ought to be even more aware of it; they should hold the standards that they are presumably holding their students to. A plagiarizing English professor is like a traffic cop drunk-driving into a tree; there’s irony in the stupid.

Speaking of stupid, over at Reason Magazine’s blog, editor Nick Gillespie notes:

Twitchell’s behavior is not simply indefensible but really fucking stupid: We live in an age where it’s tough not to get caught for plagiarizing.

Well yeah, but Twitchell is also in his mid-60s, which means that he came of age, writing-wise, in a world where Google searches and Turnitin.com didn’t exist. I suspect that even if he knows intellectually that cutting and pasting is easier to spot here in the 21st Century, some part of his brain is still working in the 20th Century, when the risk of being called out for such fluke acts of sloppiness was lower, because finding cut-and-pastery was so much more difficult and time-intensive.

This is not to suggest that every writer over the age of 40 is dumb to the ways of the Internet, because they’re not. But I do suspect in some quarters there’s a lack of appreciation for how much it’s changed the game. The flip side is that writers under 40 generally understand this better. I personally don’t aspire to plagiarism, but even if I did there’s not a chance in hell I would do it, because my book publishing career started in 2000 — i.e., well into the Search Engine era. I wouldn’t even have to think about the risk of getting caught; I’ve internalized the fact it’s inevitable. It admirably cuts down the temptation/incentive to plagiarize.

The other thing here, which is also a consequence of the online world, is that I think writers today have less fear of being seen attributing really interesting ideas to others rather than claiming them as our own, because after all that’s what we do online all the time, via linking. It’s still nice to be brilliant and have great thoughts, but there’s also increasing value in showing that one intelligently aggregates and comments on other people’s brilliance and great thoughts, because then people come to you for those aggregation and commentary skills. It’s valuable to be a conduit, basically, and not just a font. I suspect this will over time also help to tamp down the plagiarism impulse, at least among the more intellectually secure writers. One hopes it will, anyway. But if it doesn’t, there’s always that first thing.

Which is to say: Folks, the heyday of tucking someone else’s paragraphs into your work and calling it your own is over. Please don’t try it, and please don’t try it especially if you are an English professor. I mean, Christ. That’s just dumb.

(Nicked from Megan McArdle. See? Citing sources isn’t so hard, is it?)

36 thoughts on “Another One From the “People Who Really Should Know Better” File

  1. Holy crap. I just
    posted
    about the same thing with almost the same title, making almost the same point.

    I just got very weirded out. (Especially since we sourced from two completely different places.)

  2. Junior, I can’t wait until next May, when your off-the-cuff, arbitrary cut-off for tech/web cluelessness goes from “over the age of 40″ to “over the age of 50.” It will, too, overnight on the 10th, and I’m going to laaaaugh.

  3. I suspect that we’re not far off from a time when publishers routinely Google excerpts from books prior to publication.

  4. Beg pardon, Mr. Specificity. I meant “next May = May ’09, not “this May = Thursday.”

    Ah, you know what I meant.

    tick, tick, tick…

  5. I’m gonna have to put in the vote on the stupidity side of things. The reason article mentioned that he sent one of the books to an author who he plagiarized for a blurb.

  6. I can pretty well peg the cutoff, because I hit it: I arrived at Georgia Tech *the* quarter they ditched punch cards in favor of all interactive terminals, even for us frosh. The year was 1985.

    And today is my birthday; I’m 41.

    Although I have to admit, some folks around here whose beards are greyer than mine and who still have pony tails have managed to stay with it; my mentor looks to be about ten years older than me and groks Google and Wikis and such like just fine. So…. I think part of it is a *desire* to be clueful about such things…

  7. I really don’t get it. I think I’m a freak…

    I turn slightly green at the thought of lifting other folks’ markup and code even WITH attribution, an act the market actively encourages. To steal someone’s copy is an act I’ve found incomprehensible since, oh, grade school (i.e., when plagiarism was first explained to me as Something Only Assholes Do).

    Deadline pressures I understand, but… why oh why would anyone do this? Is self-respect dead?

  8. The thing about playing cut-and-paste without attribution is that generally the foreign material doesn’t sound like me. Which is why I can so easily find such stuff in my students’ papers… (grin)

    Dr. Phil

  9. Particularly dumb is to nick paragraphs from other writers at the same magazine. It doesn’t exactly take Google and the Age of the Search Engine to nab you if you plagiarize that close to home.

  10. There does seem to be a generational gaps around comfort level and adoption of computers in specific and electronics in general… the people behind me I had to train to use computers weren’t convinced they were worth the trouble. People of my generation (except those like myself who are technophiles) seem to be casual, productivity-oriented users. The generations that came after mine seem to be progressively more facile and simultaneously dependent on them to the point where psychologists think children are now socially dysfunctional. They might be right by the measure of people in their 30′s and 40′s. But by definition if people in their 20′s and younger are more comfortable online than in face to face settings, isn’t that the new norm? LOL.

    So I think I agree with John in that someone my age wouldn’t think of searching online for passages or excerpts, and someone 20mumble and younger wouldn’t think of doing anything else.

  11. Worst of all, the long passage they use to illustrate his abuse isn’t all that good. This description of Caesar’s Palace instead of filling me with awe at the spectacle created, drained me of it.

    “It has marble floors, stark white pillars, hermetically sealed ‘outdoor’ cafes, living trees, flowing fountains, and even a painted blue sky with fluffy white clouds that burst into simulated storms, complete with lightning and thunder. Every entrance to the Forum Shops and every storefront is an elaborate re-creation of a Roman portal. Inside the main entrance animatronic statues of Caesar and other Roman luminaries come to life every hour and speak.”

    I think his plagiarism deserves only one (1) star. He should have taken the time to find better source material, the slacker.

  12. I wouldn’t even have to think about the risk of getting caught; I’ve internalized the fact it’s inevitable.
    The same rule applies to student’s projects, etc.
    Experience proves that each and every year, a significant proportion insist to test their professors’ googling abilities. Yet, most of them are in their 20s…

  13. Wow. Just when I think I’ve seen the epitome of stupid.

    Also: a big ol’ resounding YES on the “aggregation and commentary skills” value. I have a few LiveJournal friends / message board subscriptions that are solely to keep me posted about interesting new stuff in a given field / fandom. It’s so nice to have people do the annoying legwork for me!

  14. Back when I used to write stories occasionally for the station where I worked I couldn’t even copy-paste AP copy without feeling dirty. I always had to re-write it.

    And being able to read along with the anchor on the other station as they read the AP copy word-for-word? That was pure comedy.

  15. 20: They’re hoping their professors are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

    Not entirely, I don’t think. At least I’ve had students plagiarize after having been given considerable evidence that they will likely be caught.

    Actually, I’ve been rather wondering about this case–is it possible that the audience had anything to do with Twitchell’s “sloppiness”? I’ve also known academics who tend to regard writing aimed at popular readers as requiring less rigid documentation than more “serious” writing. Mind you, I’m not really familiar with Twitchell’s work, and I’ve no idea if that shift would be relevant.

    I hasten to add–in the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. “Less rigid documentation” usually translates into “more detailed in-text attribution.” This is at most a possible contributing explanation, not any kind of an excuse.

  16. Every now and then when putting a company internal report together on a tight schedule I’ve grabbed a bunch of documents, copied and pasted bits into a blank page and used that as a zeroth draft. Occasionally, as in about twice in five years, if I’m flukily sloppy, really good and useful paragraphs of other peoples work with a few words changed slip through*.

    That’s what fluke acts of sloppiness look like. I’d like to think that professors writing books can do a bit better than me being hassled by my boss to get something together for a 4 O’clock meeting**.

    * Usually I look at such pieces and think “can’t do any better; I’ll quote and attribute this”.
    ** Especially when I’m supposed to be working with numbers, not words damn it.

  17. Come on Mr Scalzi, what happened to taunting the tauntable? This clown is a thief. He isn’t sloppy, he is amoral. Sloppy would be reading something, then a couple of years later rewriting the same idea in your own words. You think it’s your own idea, you just forgot where you got the idea. There is no excuse for anyone to steal some elses work. He was even too lazy to rewrite it in his own words. I learned that much in sixth grade rewording the enciclopedia for reports.
    On the age thing being an excuse I say thppt. The fact that it is very easy to get caught at this today doesn’t mean it was any less heinous an act twenty years ago. Age also isn’t a solid indicator for level of tech competency. As a former IT guy I knew quite a few new grads who didn’t have a clue about their computer. As long as their PC booted up and their apps ran they were fine but at the first sign of trouble my phone was ringing. Them “My PC won’t work, I have restarted it five times and all it keeps saying is non system disk error, hurry I have a meeting in ten minutes!” At the same time there was a sales man in his late fifties early sixties who knew as much or more than me about computers. I am 42 by the way.
    I don’t know, I guess I figured that as a writer you would be at least as indignant about this as you were about alright or hoi polloi.

  18. I’m not the one trying to suggest he’s “sloppy,” Rembrant, he is. Also, you know, I compared him to a drunk wrapping his car around a tree. I don’t know how much more taunting you want out of me.

  19. Wow, that makes me so sad. He was my favorite professor back in the day. An absolutely terrific teacher — a guy who didn’t treat students as a nuisance that interfered with his writing. Well, maybe because he was misappropriating other people’s stuff the entire time. No excuse.

  20. We had a saying in the UC Berkeley history department (probably itself stolen): Steal from once source, that’s plagarism; steal from three – that’s research!

  21. I just don’t understand why anyone would even do it. I mean, all writers have massive egos, right? (And, to quote the band AC/DC, “ego is not a dirty word”.) We all read stuff and think we can probably write it better/tighter/more innovatively/etc. Where is that sop to my ego when I use cut-and-paste? Morally, emotionally, egotistically, it’s so wrong.

  22. Tumbleweed @ 25 Wait…wait…Twitchell…isn’t that the name of a Heinlein character? Door Into Summer, maybe?
    It is indeed. The mad physics professor who invented time travel — and sent tons of rock in the wrong direction. Definitely another one from the “People Who Really Should Know Better” file, indeed.

  23. I figured I would give it 24 hours and see if I would calm down on this. Nope. I still think he is slime. I also think you delivered a slap on the wrist when the tar and feathers should of been used. DUI is close but I think getting run over by your own car while ghost riding is closer to his level of stupidity. I guess I wanted lots more taunting. Witty and entertaining taunting at that.

  24. During my late, lamented teaching career, I met many a professor of English who seemed to delight in knowing nothing about computers. It was a badge of honor to them to be so technically illiterate. So no, they don’t understand Google or any other search engine, and if they use turnitin for their students’ essays, they don’t understand how it works.

  25. As the link takes one to the paper’s front page, a site search on his name turns up not only the relevant article, but a gushing feature piece from last December, about the very book most at issue, that begins, “I met Jim Twitchell some years ago and found him then to be an engaging conversationalist, but it was not until I read his latest book that I discovered what a bright and original critic of modern culture he is and how broadly gauged he is.”

    Ayup. Make enough of other people’s observations without attributing them, and you too can be original and broadly gauged.

    I suspect Twitchell’s real problem is that he never had a very clear idea of where the line regarding absorbing ideas from the world around you really is.

  26. Writing is hard. For me, every word in every sentence is a product of considerable thought. This is why I can look at a sentence and know whether or not I myself wrote it, even if I wrote it years and years ago. Something that someone else wrote, if it somehow found its way into a paragraph of my own work, would leap out at me as if it were written in flashing neon letters. But someone else’s work wouldn’t just magically get into my own work – I would have to put it there – and I would remember the deliberate decision to do so.

    So nah, I ain’t buying the “fluke acts of sloppiness” and the “oh darn I forgot to footnote that quote” excuses, from anyone, ever.

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