While putting the finishing touches on a draft chapter of my dissertation recently, I happened to go digging around in the research archives one more time. I felt that one section, about the earliest advocates of large-scale assessment of higher education, was missing that killer quote. I happened to find an unpublished dissertation that considered some of the same themes as my own, but which used a very different methodology and which comes from a different programmatic background than mine. I found a good source to look up there, which leads as always to the dilemma: am I obligated to cite the place where I found another citation? Does the obscurity of that source matter? Certainly, if what I had found through that dissertation was some obscure manuscript, I would have cited the dissertation as well, but in fact the source was just another scholarly journal article. As is often the case, I would have found it myself if I had just slightly altered search terms. (I often think of Law & Order episodes where there is some controversy about an illegal search, and the prosecutors argue inevitable discovery.)
Reading further, I was somewhat surprised to find how many other sources we shared. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been. The topics I’m researching include very obscure avenues of education assessment, psychometrics, and the history of higher education policy. But it was worrisome to see a half dozen or so shared citations, even while I knew that there were far more references that we did not share. Most disturbingly, we had even quoted some of the same passages and sentences, although where we chose to truncate those sentences was different. At that point, I had a mini-panic attack; was I guilty of plagiarism? Of course not. I had written this stuff down weeks before I had found this other dissertation. But the implications were disturbing: if my advisor or another reader compared my work to this other researcher’s, it might cause them to question the originality of my work. I ended up quoting and citing the dissertation as a way to touch that base. That sort of self-defensive approach to plagiarism or the appearance of same comes from my years-long experience in academic writing.
I tell you this story because of the accusation of plagiarism that has been leveled against Rick Perlstein, the historian of contemporary conservatism. Craig Shirley, himself a biographer of Ronald Reagan, has accused Perlstein of copying and pasting some of his work, of patchwriting, and of insufficiently sourcing his research. I can’t really adjudicate the fairness of these accusations at present, as Shirley has not yet presented his full claims or evidence. I doubt very much that Perlstein intentionally plagiarized Shirley, but I am unable to say that this attitude is a matter of addressing the accusation rather than the accused. I admire Perlstein’s work very much, and there’s some significant overlap in our politics, so it’s hard for me to doubt his integrity. (In a remarkable lapse of ethics of his own, Fred Barnes fails to disclose in that Weekly Standard piece that he himself wrote the forward to Shirley’s book.)
Patchwriting is a very sticky issue. In the Poynter piece I linked to above, it is discussed as a type of dishonest practice in which “rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.” In other words, this is not strict copy-and-paste plagiarism, but rather plagiarism wherein the writer changes some minor syntactic and stylistic features but preserves the information and content of the original. I certainly agree that this practice is bad business, one which prevents students from learning the necessary moves for writing well, and one which amounts to stealing from the original author. But I also think that it can be hard to say where appropriate paraphrasing ends and patchwriting begins, and it’s even harder to tell the difference between someone drawing from the same sources and someone copying.
As I said before, when boring down into great detail about very specific subjects, it becomes common to find that only a handful of other people have written about your subjects. And without getting into an epistemelogical debate, facts are facts, more or less, and we can expect for different people to come to the same conclusions quite frequently. This is a particular issue when the topic is history; two different historians investigating the same time periods and people will inevitably dig up some of the same stories. Facts, famously, cannot be copyrighted. During the Benny Johnson dust up, I was quite convinced that Johnson was a serial plagiarist, and I think there’s tons of evidence that he had lifted text word-for-word from other sources without attribution. I think firing him was appropriate. But there were also accusations that seemed less clear to me, places where he had paraphrased historical or factual information that, while too close to other people’s materials, seemed more a matter of clumsy paraphrasing and bad judgement. More, I’m not sure that if you put several similar paraphrases or discussions of the same material against each other, I could safely say which was a matter of intellectual theft and which was coincidence.
Again, I don’t say any of this to exonerate Johnson. I think Buzzfeed dismissing him was an appropriate step. But I do think that we have a tendency to slide very quickly from the obvious, identifiable problems of copy-and-pasting plagiarism to the harder to define, harder to defend accusation of patchwriting. The current structure of the “content” business just makes this more difficult. With the constant claims of joke stealing in stand up comedy, I’ve often thought that, with so many people trying to make it in that industry, different comics legitimately coming up with the same material seems inevitable. Likewise, in an era of so many people writing online, and writing about the same small handful of subjects thanks to the economics of the industry, some overlap is inevitable. So how do you adjudicate that? I don’t know.
In Purdue’s introductory composition classes, there’s a mandatory, weekly conferencing session for all students where they work with their instructor individually or in small groups. It’s a major investment of resources, and there are always administrators asking why we bother. But when I was teaching freshman comp, I found these sessions immensely useful. I actually felt that I got more real teaching done in these small groups than in any other part of the class. Beyond the pedagogical value, conferencing was the only way I felt confident that I was minimizing (not eliminating) plagiarism in my class. With the internet making plagiarism a constant temptation, the only way I truly felt that I could substantially curtail the problem was by seeing student writing through from beginning, to middle, to end. Usually, the students just weren’t savvy enough to plagiarize without my noticing. They’d go from having nothing to having a totally polished, impressive draft, or they’d have a piece that was sketchy and unfinished and suddenly several clean paragraphs that didn’t really connect. And Google helped, as well. But I know that there were likely some smart plagiarists who, with enough effort and smarts, could put one over on me. The fear with plagiarism is that what you can really punish isn’t so much plagiarizing as failing to do it well.
That’s my fear with plagiarism outside of the classroom, too. But I’m also afraid of accusing those who didn’t plagiarize, in part because I know how easy it can be to appear to have done so, and because the accusation is rightly very serious and potentially damaging. It’s a sticky, sticky set of problems.