Sunday, November 8, 2009

On Plagiarism

I heart Malcolm Gladwell. He's not only extremely readable, he's also so original in the angle he takes on a story. I've been reading What the Dog Saw, a collection of his previous publications from The New Yorker. The book takes its title from an article begun as a study of Cesar Millan of "Dog Whisperer" fame; Gladwell realized somewhere in the writing process that writing about what the dog sees and experiences is invariably more interesting than a straightforward biographical piece. As he says himself in his introduction, "Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."

With that shining endorsement, here's a brilliant paragraph from "Something Borrowed," an article examining what we have culturally determined to constitute plagiarism:

"And this is the second problem with plagiarism. It is not merely extremist. It has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity. We accept the right of one writer to engage in a full-scale knockoff of another--think how many serial-killer novels have been cloned from The Silence of the Lambs. Yet, when Kathy Acker incorporated parts of a Harold Robbins sex scene verbatim in a satiric novel, she was denounced as a plagiarist (and threatened with a lawsuit."

Well said. I would add that, while I certainly understand the need to protect intellectual property to encourage innovation (as does Gladwell), I find the extreme reactions to plagiarism in our culture to be almost puritanical in the scope of their moral condemnation. In the academic world (where, admittedly, plagiarism is contextually more serious than in the example cited above), plagiarism is the highest crime, assuring that the perpetrator wears the equivalent of a large, red "P" for plagiarist. Considering how stringent we are in our definitions of plagiarism and how easy it might be for a scholar immersed in hundreds of articles, without perhaps the best sense of organization, to inadvertently borrow some information, this reaction seems extreme. Is plagiarism really the great evil we make it out to be?

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