Plagiarists: Catch Your Own Clue

Plagarism is running rampant.

Susan J. Douglas

Ann Coulter: a thieving wench.

Plagiarism is on the rise – in journalism, by bestselling authors, on college campuses and online. But the one thing those of us victimized by it can’t do is speak up. If we do, we are accused of sour grapes.” 

Occasionally, reporters who make things up (Jayson Blair) or copy from another newspaper (most recently New York Post reporter Andy Geller) do get fired or suspended for sheer fabrication or thievery. But increasingly, only the form of expression is protected: I can steal your ideas all I want as long as I put them in my own words.

Educators are supposed to teach our students that intellectual theft is the worst crime they can commit in the academy, yet these same students see all sorts of people, from Doris Kearns Goodwin to Ann Coulter, profiting from it. One study in 2005 found that 70 percent of undergraduates said they had cheated. And why not? 

Two recent cases expose the increasingly elastic journalistic and publishing standards vis-á-vis plagiarism. In early July, The New York Post reported that John Barrie, whose company iParadigms provides a plagiarism tracking service, had found textbook plagiarism” in Ann Coulter’s latest vehicle for personal enrichment and self-promotion, Godless. The passages in question, lifted from the San Francisco Chronicle, a Planned Parenthood publication, and a newspaper in Portland, Maine, ranged from 24 to 33 words each. 

Coulter’s publisher Crown responded, The number of words used by our author in these snippets is so minimal that there is no requirement for attribution.” Similarly, Universal Press Syndicate, which syndicates her column, dismissed the charges, There are only so many ways you can rewrite a fact and minimal match text is not plagiarism.” As Tim Grieve asked in Salon, How many words can an author steal before the theft counts as plagiarism?” The answer, it seems, rests on how much she’s raking in for her companies.

In another case, Valerie Lawson, author of Out of the Sky She Came, reportedly the definitive biography of Mary Poppins creator Pamela Travers, found much of her research presented as original reporting in a New Yorker article by Caitlin Flanagan. Flanagan interviewed Lawson for the piece, yet her book was never mentioned. The January/​February 2006 Columbia Journalism Review reprinted the entire e-mail exchange between Lawson and New Yorker editors over the borrowing. 

Lawson provided example after example of how previously unknown material about Travers magically appeared in the Flanagan article without attribution. Much of her article could not be supported by her interviews,” noted Lawson dryly, because the information came from papers and correspondence of people who are now dead.” 

The New Yorker insisted that Flanagan had done all the supporting research herself, and replied that credit given your book in our piece was adequate.” The magazine refused to publish Lawson’s initial letter of complaint, proposing, instead, that she write them a letter of gratitude for reminding people about the creator of Mary Poppins.

My own experience with this has been equally unpleasant. In February 2004, Meredith Michaels and I published The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. One year later, the journalist Judith Warner published her book Perfect Madness on the same subject, the unattainable standards of perfection surrounding motherhood. Much of the argument, point after point, was identical to our book – we compiled six pages of eerily similar passages – yet we were not cited once. Like Lawson, we saw research we had done included without attribution. But because there were no lengthy passages containing identical prose, we had no recourse. Moreover, we were told that if we sought to go public with this, it would hurt us: We would be the ones tainted, not her, as resentful soreheads with no class. After all, as a Newsweek reporter, her book became a cover story for the magazine while ours had not – weren’t we just bitter?

In our current hyper-commercial and anti-intellectual environment, it is the large corporations and publications that can afford to trademark, patent and copyright everything. Prominent and profitable journalists, unless their borrowing is exact and extensive, are protected. The Coulter case suggests that we may be on an even more slippery slope about how much word-for-word copying will be tolerated by bestselling writers in the future. 

Meanwhile, for drones slogging away in archives, tracking down people to interview, checking their facts and struggling to develop fresh ideas about how to see the world and new arguments about history, culture and society, forget it. Your work is increasingly fair game.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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