< The Dirty Dozen


Friday, March 19, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Throughout plagiarism’s long and tawdry history, there’s one element that seems to tie all the crimes together, the excuses. Slate’s Jack Shafer, who identified Gerald Posner’s plagiarism at The Daily Beast last month, has compiled what he calls “the dirty dozen” rationalizations which crop up time after time with a stunning, if unsurprising, lack of originality. Jack, welcome back to the show.

JACK SHAFER: You betcha.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, how did you formulate your list of excuses?

JACK SHAFER: A Slate reader named Michael Clark, who’s a historian, sent me his list of the most common excuses he'd experienced while teaching. He gave me six and I added another six onto that, to come up with a dirty dozen.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many of the dirty dozen excuses, I guess, are intended to garner some sympathy for the plagiarist.

JACK SHAFER: Well, all of them seem to tap the forgiveness in the human soul.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And among some of the specific sympathy ones, you've got, I was really tired. That’s number 10. Number 12, I was young and inexperienced. I love the first excuse the best though, I have no reason to plagiarize!

JACK SHAFER: It’s a lot about switching the subject, I have no reason to plagiarize, I'm very accomplished, I did all the reporting. Why would I lift four or five consecutive sentences? So it’s one of the things that the plagiarist does to bamboozle the people that he’s trying to give the excuse to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You talk about the banality of plagiarism. [LAUGHS]

JACK SHAFER: There is a school of plagiarist who says, well, there was nothing really all that special. It wasn't Proustian language that I was boosting. It was just sort of flat description, or it wasn't very distinguished, or it wasn't very literary. They're basically saying, these words are up for grabs. I can call them my own and make the reader think that they're reading something original by lifting these everyday pedestrian words. The thing about everyday pedestrian words is it sometimes takes hours and hours and hours to do the reporting to write a pedestrian two or three sentences.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another class of the dirty dozen are the excuses that are meant to suggest that it really isn't plagiarism at all, because the intention wasn't there – I didn't intend to do it – or, as you mentioned, it was only “boilerplate” or “wire copy.”

JACK SHAFER: The intention excuse presents this case for crypto-amnesia, that they took something but they don't recall it. The boilerplate excuse annoys me because the guy who created the boilerplate had to work really hard to produce that. You know, a lot of people say, oh, you’re so upset about plagiarism because it’s stealing writers’ work. That doesn't bother me as much as the fraud that it foists off on readers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let me challenge that, because my feeling is, as a reader, that if the information is important and if the provenance is secure – for instance, if somebody steals some AP copy but doesn't credit it – it doesn't matter that much to me. It’s really the writers that care about getting ripped off.

JACK SHAFER: But how does the plagiarist know that that which he has lifted in its new context is true information? The plagiarist, even when he lifts a clean and factual set of sentences and places them in a new context, he doesn't really know the deeper meaning of those.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but you don't solve that problem merely by crediting the source.

JACK SHAFER: No, but you give the reader a way to make a migration back to the original information to check it himself. I've always believed that the best journalism is reproducible.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like scientific experiments?

JACK SHAFER: Like a scientific experiment, that given similar tools, similar sourcing, a similar [LAUGHS] budget, you could go and interview the same people and come up with a very, very similar story that would confirm the original story. This is a radical assertion on your part. You’re defending plagiarism on what grounds?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] I’m not defending it. I am just saying that in the list of journalistic felonies it doesn't play that high in my book.

JACK SHAFER: What is the list of felonies?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Making things up is like number one, two, three, four, five, six through twelve, and number thirteen is plagiarism, because it’s a sin of vanity, rather than a capital offense.

JACK SHAFER: No, I think it’s a moral failing, and it’s a violation of the trust that’s shared by the reporter, the editor, the publisher of the information and the reader. I think that journalism, except when there is attribution, comes with almost a contractual promise that the material is original.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't misunderstand me. I don't think that this is an acceptable practice.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: I just find it often put in the same category as making things up.

JACK SHAFER: Let's say that what you lifted was a quotation, but the implication was that the quotation was given to the reporter. Isn't that making something up? Many times, plagiarists lift quotations and make it appear as though it was their enterprise that went and got this interview. And I don't see how it’s not making things up to grab material from outside of a context and place it inside a new context.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, I think you’ve convinced me that I'm wrong, that there is no line between plagiarism and fabrication.

JACK SHAFER: Really? Now I have to talk you out of it.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] I've taken you [LAUGHS] too far. I'm too persuasive.


JACK SHAFER: It was fantastic.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer is Slate’s editor-at-large.