Plagiarize This Post

The New York Times public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, has sided with a Sunday magazine contributor, the linguist Guy Deutscher—who was accused of failing to cite another scholar who had expressed a similar thesis and used some of the same examples—on the influence of language on thought. Brisbane quotes a prominent linguistic anthropologist, my friend Michael Silverstein of the University of Chicago (see his unrelated but wonderful letter to the Times on names):

In dealing with these issues, Mr. Silverstein said, "one could not avoid writing about these particular substantive phenomena and these particular lines of research, since that is what has fired folks up" -- the "folks" being the researchers themselves.

The problem here, I conclude, is not one of intellectual theft. It's really a problem of journalism itself.The rules of attribution and credit in the domain of scholarship are established, strict and well-understood. Journalism, by contrast, lacks a formal code for citing scholarly work. When scholarly subject matter traverses the border into popular journalism, it simply isn't clear how much attribution is enough.

But are trade books really so different from newspapers and magazines? Neither economics nor readers' patience will permit all the footnoted references that might be relevant to many points, as I know from experience. Scientific papers and some university press books are another matter; notes and references often proliferate, in part because one never knows who will be refereeing the manuscript and looking for their own work. The proliferation of academic books and articles can easily produce a bibliographic snowball.

Rules were more informal in the clubbier late 19th century. As I wrote in an essay on Woodrow Wilson and college honor codes, Wilson's celebrated book, Congressional Government, never mentioned a key source of his ideas, a writer named Gamaliel Bradford. Yet Bradford reviewed it enthusiastically, never mentioning the omission:* everybody who mattered in the 1880s knew each other and whose ideas were whose.

The explosion of print media in the decade after Wilson's dissertation, the mid-1880s, began a change in ideas about originality and citation. (I've written here about the difficulty of saying anything new.) Scholarship was starting to become an endless loop of intellectual predation, leading to Arnold Bennett's 1898 description of the delivery of books in the British Museum reading room as a "cannibal feast of the living upon the dead" as "nonchalant waiters"  incessantly rolled their trucks of food.** Deliberate literary dishonesty does exist, but I fear that even the most exhaustive (and for writers, exhausting) documentation on line won't silence cries of ripoff. We are all living in the plagiosphere.

*Arthur S. Link, Wilson: The Princeton Years (Princeton, NJ, 1947), 14-15.

**Arnold Bennett, A Man from the North (New York, [1898] 1911), cited in Roy Porter, "Reading Is Bad for Your Health," History Today, vol. 48, no. 3 (March 1998), 11-16.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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