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?)