May 21, 2009

"As a college professor, I've heard many excuses for plagiarism over the years, but I don't believe that I've ever heard one quite that lame."

Language Log shows why you shouldn't believe Maureen Dowd. People just don't remember that sort of thing verbatim. Or is the non-lame response: Everyone these days understands that "talking to" includes emailing and IM'ing?

Certainly, in blogging, we say "X said" to mean "X wrote." And I see that I just said "we say" to mean "we write"... And I just said "I just said" to mean...

Oh, enough! Let me say instead that I didn't even bother to blog the Maureen Dowd "plagiarism" story (until now) because I don't consider that kind of thing serious plagiarism. It's sloppy and embarrassing, but it's completely unintentional and not a deliberate effort to pass off someone else's writing as one's own.

It was dull prose, not an eloquent phrasing or snappy quip. So this was was the sort of faux-plagiarism that constantly threatens all of us in these days of quick cutting and pasting. You think you know what is a quote when you're compiling your notes, but maybe later you see it and think it's yours.

Now, I like to believe I'll remember what blocks of text I dropped into my documents, and if I'm not too rushed or I think I might forget, I put quote marks or indentations to remind me what's not mine. Also, I think if I look back on something that I didn't write, I'll recognize that it's not my style.

But it's possible to slip up, and what Dowd did looks like exactly the sort of thing that can only be a slip.

The real fault is not making it a point always to write sharp, distinctive prose. Prose like the stuff Dowd lifted called out for rewriting. She might not have known to think I can't use that because I didn't write it. But she should at least have thought I can't use that because it's dull.

It's sad, because Dowd tends to err in the other direction — rewriting things into the snappiest possible prose. That quirk should have saved her from this slip. It didn't this time. She's been embarrassed. That's all.


mcg said...

I've had to deal with some pretty egregious plagiarism this week as I've graded take-home finals. It was discouraging because these are supposedly intelligent Ph.D. students who ought to know better. And indeed, some of them did. But the temptation to do a straight copy-and-paste must be huge.

Thankfully, in my case the source material was 1) flawed and 2) in my possession. #2 made it easy to identify, and #1 made it easy to sanction. If you're gonna steal something, at least steal something good, OK?

Hoosier Daddy said...

I thought this was going to be about Biden.

Big Mike said...

Or they both could both have plagiarized the text from JournoList.

Pogo said...

The funniest part of her minor theft was that the talking points were taken verbatim from "Talking Points Memo".

It's like those form faxes you're told to send your Senator with the entire argument typed out for you.

The real crime was that she got paid for it.

She needs a Random Dowd Generator for writer's block days.

AllenS said...

It isn't plagiarism if it's a talking point.

traditionalguy said...

You mean that Talking Points even need attribution? Excellent writing yourself Professor.

Bissage said...

Writing sharp, distinctive prose is like stabbing out your own eyes with a dinner fork that’s been pulled out of a sweaty fat man’s hairy anus.

john said...

As a scientist, Dr. Throckmorton knew, that if he ever broke wind in the echo chamber, he would never hear the end of it.

Don't know why I thought that was pertinent here. Kind of an impetuous Belushi moment.

Sofa King said...

Point of information - it's not actually possible to embarrass someone who does not possess shame.

Lem said...

I think there is also a “ware a tare” factor if you will.

When I first came here I used link more and try to be more precise.
Looking back I see the same from other favorite commenter’s of mine.

There is a 'familiarity' that seeps in and (if you don’t mind exhausting clich├ęs)
it spills over.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I thought this was going to be about Biden.

Actually, the linked Language Log post is partly about Biden. Dowd had a role in revealing Biden's plagiarism in the 1988 presidential race, so a lot of people have been talking about that. (And this is certainly one of the burning issues of the day, right up there with the economic crisis and the situation in Pakistan.)

Lem said...

thats "ware and tare"

see what i mean?

Joseph Hovsep said...

Let me say instead that I didn't even bother to blog the Maureen Dowd "plagiarism" story (until now) because I don't consider that kind of thing serious plagiarism. It's sloppy and embarrassing, but it's completely unintentional and not a deliberate effort to pass off someone else's writing as one's own.

I totally agree. Its certainly embarrassing but not damning evidence of an ethical lapse of the kind the word "plagiarism" provokes. I don't know about the technology, but I would have assumed that a major publisher like NYT would run all stories through some kind of plagiarism check system. It seems like this kind of thing probably happens with some frequency and that publishers could easily prevent it with some not-very-complex software.

Jeremy said...

She's lying through her teeth.

MadisonMan said...

She should just hit Josh Marshall's paypal button a couple times.

john said...

I always spelled it "wear and tear".

But since this is not one of the burning issues of the day I shouldn't even be on this thread.

Beth said...

My favorite was lamer: a sophomore non-English major turned in a feminist analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper," complete with grad student jargon and catchwords. It took me about a minute to Google it and print it out.

When I confronted her with it, her face registered shock and she said, "I got it from my sister! She didn't say it was plagiarized!"

Michael McNeil said...

Jeremy sez:
She's lying through her teeth.

Says our own resident plagiarizer. And he knows it when he sees it!

Jeremy said...

Michael McNeil said..."Says our own resident plagiarizer. And he knows it when he sees it!"

You're a lying sack of shit.

Suck my dick.

Der Hahn said...

Since somebody brought up Joe...

President Obama is so "distracted by his vice president's indiscipline" that he has been forced to rebuke privately Vice President Joe Biden, according to a new book by Newsweek journalist Richard Wolffe, who interviewed Obama a dozen times.

"He can't keep his mouth shut," Wolffe quotes a "senior Obama aide" as saying of the gaffe-prone Biden in "Renegade: The Making of a President," set for release June 2.

(via The Corner)

Imagine that! So odd that Joe Biden was well known for being articulate (and clean, too!) before becoming VeeP....

MadisonMan said...

My favorite plagiarised paper was taken from a 19th century work. Talk about stilted prose. Google to the rescue.

mccullough said...

I thought Dowd took the buyout.

Zach said...

I caught a plagiarist who had obviously printed out a web page.

Margins, people! They're different for web pages. Show a little care when you steal.

Also, direct cut & paste is incredibly easy to catch. You take the sentence that sounds professional and type it into Google. The student's source will be on the first page.

My mom caught a student plagiarizing Dave Barry. How a student thinks they'll get away with stealing polished, stylish prose from a popular current writer is beyond me.

Big Mike said...

I'm very glad to see that the professors who contribute to this thread take plagiarism seriously.

When my older son was a senior in high school his English teacher sent home an example of what she thought was an A paper. But, excuse me, even in today's climate there was no way a 17 year old female could have had enough sexual experience to have written what she allegedly wrote herself.

Worse happened with my younger child. The local teachers favor group projects -- fewer papers to grade and you can stick your weak students on otherwise strong teams so you don't have to deal with irate parents and even more irate principals when the kid flunks. But I digress. Anyway, the team was assigned to write an original script and the team leader decided that what they would do is download the script for the "killer rabbit" vignette from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." When I found out I had a long talk with my younger son about plagiarism and how that's not right and you'll get an F and so on. So he came back to the next team meeting with some ideas for changing the setting a little bit and some changes to the dialog. And was shouted down.

But that was okay because the got their A.

How a high school English teacher could fail to recognize the vignette is a puzzler. Moreover, how could a teacher mistake the work output of four of the most creative comedians of the 20th century for the legitimate the work output of three freshmen? Yes, they were in the GT program (the boy takes after his mother!) but c'mon now.

So, bottom line, you professors are having to deal with students who have been pretty much trained by their high school teachers that plagiarism is perfectly okay. I suppose you're a bit of a culture shock to the darlings.

Christy said...

Beth, nice example of a certain mindset. Do young women truly get "The Yellow Wallpaper" these days? I confess I only recently read it and was disappointed. I thought the husband was gaslighting her and with that framing I totally missed the point until the end. I wouldn't expect the modern college woman, much less college men, to identify with the tale. Am I wrong?

Henry said...

The most creative plagiarist in my wife's course this semester plagiarized each paragraph of a short paper from a different source. All she added were some rather awkward transitional sentences. Dead obvious.

John Lynch said...

The extension of academic plagiarism rules into the public sphere is wrong.

We're not all academics, and it's getting more and more pervasive to find some trivial copying and call a writer's entire career into question over nothing.

It's stupid.

Deirdre Mundy said...

When I was in sixth grade, I won a district-wide writing award. At the awards ceremony, the superintendant read the first stanza of the winning poem for 12th grade-- one that he thought was incredibly original and insightful.

"Hello, Darkness/
My old friend./
I've come/
to talk/
to you/

Because a Vision-
softly creeping
left it's seeds
while I was sleeping."

My mother, father and I cracked up and nearly fell out of our chairs we were laughing so hard. Apparently 3 levels of awards committees hadn't realized that the kid was just chopping up Paul Simon.

This was in the late 80's, too, so it's not like Simon and Garfunkel were some new, underground act noone had heard of.

rcocean said...

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ambrose plagiarized whole books & Nian Totenberg used to steal whole articles when she was a "journalist".

Its no biggie - if you have the right friends - or you steal from the right people. Kinda like TARP.

Floridan said...

It's sloppy and embarrassing, but it's completely unintentional and not a deliberate effort to pass off someone else's writing as one's own.1) How would you know its unintentional (much less "entirely unintentional").

2) How does your supposition square with Dowd's lame explanation?

3) If Dowd was blogging for free, this would be stupid, but it would hurt only her own credibility. She gets paid what I suspect is a substantial amount of money to deliver original thoughts, so to the extent she doesn't she is stealing from her employer.

4) I would think that a professor would be a little less lackadaisical about using others' writing without attribution. The University of Wisconsin Law School certainly does not take it lightly: "Law students are expected to realize that passing off the work of others as their own constitutes plagiarism in the larger sense of that word. Such conduct is subject to the sanctions of the University of Wisconsin Student Disciplinary Code, and may result not only in a failing grade for the course involved, but other sanctions as well, including dismissal. In addition, students who engage in such activity can expect that such conduct may result in denial of admission to the bar due to the questionable moral character reflected by the conduct." (UW Law School Rules. Appendix B: Statements Pertaining to Academic Dishonesty).

5) That it's difficult to avoid using others' words (what with cutting and pasting) is not a very convincing argument.

Floridan said...

rcocean: "Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ambrose plagiarized whole books . . . "

Whole books? I think not.

Zach said...

John Lynch -- I think plagiarism is a strong indication that something else is wrong, even when the plagiarism is not huge in its own right. It's so trivial to cite things properly that important things have to break down before you have a problem.

Take the recent case of Doris Kearns Goodwin. She got in trouble because of some passages lifted from another book. I believe her story is that a research assistant lifted the passages, and she included them without attribution because she thought it was the RA's work. But the RA is not a coauthor! Goodwin didn't even read the work that she's citing as evidence closely enough to identify large passages.

There's no way that can fail to affect the quality of Goodwin's work. If you read _Team of Rivals,_ it sounds like it was typed up from a summary of research prepared by someone else. All of the sources are predictable, all of the facts are generic.

John Lynch said...

Zach, I think you're right. It can be a symptom that something is wrong.

rcocean said...

Yes, I overstate. Ambrose and Goodwin just plagiarized numerous "passages" in several of their best-selling books. Hush money had to be paid.

Both seemed to suffer from the same problem - Research assistants ghost-writing their books and "forgetting" to use quote marks.

Maxine Weiss said...

I love how lawyers on this site, who deal in boilerplate all day long, are using all their skills to defend Maureen Dowd !!!!

Jason said...

About a year ago, I was working as a copywriter at a small marketing firm. The boss brought in some cute 20-something wonder kid, and put her senior to me. I wasn't too impressed either with her or her writing, but was willing to give it a shot.

She threw me under the bus with the boss... had a problem with a press release I wrote. (If she bothered to format her page correctly, she would have realized that the formatting problem was on her end, not mine).

Anyway, rather than come to me to work out the problem, she aired out her grievances to the boss. By email. CC me.

Totally fucking classless.

I printed out the correctly-formatted press release in question, and produced it to the boss. When she wasn't receptive to my defense, I gave my notice on the spot.

The next day, I did a search to see what else the wunderkind had written for publication. The very first article I looked at... a news story for an industry web site... I found a long paragraph that stood out as not being representative of her style or voice at all.

I googled a couple of phrases, and found she had lifted two full paragraphs, verbatim, without attribution, from Readers' Digest, and stuck it in her article.

I looked at another article she wrote and found another incident of plagiarism.

Two for two.

I took the second-in-command of the firm aside, and said "Look, I realize I've got a bone to pick, and if I tell C. directly it will look petty coming from me.

But one copywriter and former journo to another, you've got a liability here. This is a small industry, and some competitor can get a hold of this and put egg all over our face and ruin our name in this industry."

He agreed, and we thought the best course of action was to keep an eye on her work and if it happened again put a stop to it.

Now? She's no longer at the firm, and they're asking me to freelance.

Beth said...

My mom caught a student plagiarizing Dave Barry. How a student thinks they'll get away with stealing polished, stylish prose from a popular current writer is beyond me.Because they are ignorant of what is polished and stylish, and they don't know any popular, current writers beyond whoever wrote the latest vampire romances.

I kid. I have some great students with very interesting tastes in reading (Into the Wild seems be popular among the young men right now).

Beth said...

Christy - most of my students do end up getting The Yellow Wallpaper. Occasionally, very young men can't see past the idea that the narrator is just plain crazy, but that's rare. Often, by the time we discuss it in class, someone has taken the time to research it and brings up the story about Weir Mitchell and his treatment plan.

As for plagiarism, I have all my students submit their papers via a service that checks against a bunch on online databases, and then I do a check myself, mainly using the familiarity with each students' writing styles that I've developed through short in-class assignments.

Our faculty senate has set up a good system: when we report a plagiarized assignment, it is kept on file so if another instructor reports the same student in a later semester, the student can be put on probation. This semester, we amended our policy to include the option to issue an F for the class as well; up to now, we were limited to failing just the assignment.

Big Mike's comments here make a lot of sense: I've had students plagiarize more than once in the same class, even after serious consultation with me on what constitutes it and how to avoid it. I'm starting to believe that some students don't truly get the whole concept. I want them to use sources, to interact with other opinions and ideas, to find facts and examples. The sticking point is proper citation. I spend a lot more of my class time on this now than I did ten years ago.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

"When I confronted her with it, her face registered shock and she said, 'I got it from my sister! She didn't say it was plagiarized!'"

That is funny as hell.

Beth - citing is one thing, but isn't it an issue that the paper the student presents should reflect the student's thoughts? Obviously they have to have facts to back all that up, but if every single line in a paper is derived from elsewhere, is it still OK if every line is cited properly?

That's the problem I have with Dowd's thing. It wasn't her thought but she presented it as hers. And didn't even change up the language. If she'd written, "as my friend said the other day, 'blah blah'," she'd be off the hook for plagiarism, but at some point she still needs to have original thoughts.

Here is my favorite plagiarism story. Followups here and here.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

BTW, I love "The Yellow Wallpaper". So do my daughter and my mother.

Big Mike said...

@Beth, you wrote "(Into the Wild seems be popular among the young men right now)".

I just hope they don't try it. The guy got luckier (e.g., finding the bus) and lived a lot longer than he had any right to, given the state of his preparedness to survive that far from civilization.

Even so, he died and probably painfully.

Zach said...

Here is my favorite plagiarism story. Followups here and here.If you look at the last followup, you'll see why plagiarism goes unpunished so often. The student will cry. The mother will call. The dean will get involved. And the final decision will involve the phrase "she shouldn't have to suffer for her whole life because of one bad decision."

If the punishment is up to the teacher, the teacher will cave. The teacher isn't experienced enough to decide on an appropriate punishment and make it stick.

My college had a very effective honor code, and one important aspect of that was that an honor council would decide on the actual punishments. That way you have some consistency from case to case, and the teacher doesn't have the ability to get cold feet and let it slide.

William said...

There's a kind of droit du seigneur that goes on with these plagiarism cases. If a greater writer borrows from a lesser writer it is generally considered an oversight rather than something deliberate. Wynona Ryder probably got away with shoplifting a few times before she was busted. "These sunglasses? I put them into my purse forgetfully. You surely don't think a Hollywood star could possibly be a shoplifter?"...Dowd lifted the pedestrian phrasing of a none too brilliant insight by a marginal player. She'll get away with it.

William said...

I think a fair number of girls ask the geeky guy with glasses to write a paper for them. At any rate I knew a fair number of girls who asked me to write a paper for them......I wrote a sociology paper on a book I hadn't read for a friend. She only got a B- and complained to me about it. I told her I dumbed it down so it wouldn't look plagiarized. She thought it over and thanked me. When you're a geeky guy with glasses you have to sacrifice pride and ethics to make your way in this hard world......Maybe the above story isn't true. Perhaps I read it somewhere and it is a falsely recovered memory. But teachers should be aware that they only catch the dumber plagiarizers.

Fen said...

But it's possible to slip up, and what Dowd did looks like exactly the sort of thing that can only be a slip.

Except that Maureen attacks people for making a mere "slip". So off with her head.

Beth said...

if every single line in a paper is derived from elsewhere, is it still OK if every line is cited properly?Good point, Laura - and no, that wouldn't pass. Source material for support, and as counterargument, should be useful, not a crutch.

Beth said...

I told her I dumbed it down so it wouldn't look plagiarized.Good decision! And those are the ones it's hard to identify - most people don't go to that trouble now, though. They think they're safe buying something from

Beth said...

Laura - what a funny saga (or raga?) - thanks for sharing that.

Beth said...

After reading the story Laura linked to, I was reminded of an early internet experience. My partner, C, was part of putting together one of the first New Orleans tourism information sites, and would field a lot of emails from folks seeking info on what to do and see in the city. But one person wrote: "I'm writing a detective novel set in New Orleans and I've never been there. Can you tell me everything about New Orleans? Thanks!" C wrote back, "No."

kentuckyliz said...

If she screwed others to get the gig, then she has to plagiarize others to keep it.

Unless she's following Seven Machos' advice about blow jobs.

kentuckyliz said...

Many college profs are using SafeAssign to automatically screen for plagiarism. The students know not to cheat when they have to submit through SafeAssign. If they know that, then they know what plagiarism is. Duhhhhh.