Christine Rosen on the Plague of the Plagiarists

Christine Rosen | Posted on 03/15/10

He vowed, "I shall not be doing journalism on the internet until I am satisfied that I can do so without violating my own standards and the basic rules of journalism."

Last month, in what is becoming a perennial scandal in journalism, two writers admitted to plagiarizing in their work. Zachery Kouwe, a young business reporter at the New York Times, resigned after he was found to have lifted passages from the Wall Street Journal on the Times' DealBook blog.  "I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper," he told the New York Observer by way of explanation.  "I was pushing myself to do as much as I possibly can. I was careless."  Journalist Gerald Posner of the Daily Beast also blamed the accelerated pace of online publishing when he was caught using multiple passages of others' work without attribution. "The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer-with two years or more on a project-to what I describe as ‘the warp speed of the net,'" he wrote on his blog.  He vowed, "I shall not be doing journalism on the internet until I am satisfied that I can do so without violating my own standards and the basic rules of journalism."

Recent years have also witnessed an increase in what might be called plagiarism-by-design:  authors who liberally lift passages from others' work without attribution but justify their use of it by calling the finished product a "mashup" or "pastiche" of multiple forms.  Seventeen-year-old German writer Helene Hegemann, whose novel recently appeared on best-seller lists in Germany, was uncontrite when observers pointed out that she had lifted large passages of her book from a less-well-known novel.  Her generation doesn't see this as thievery, she said, but as a new form of expression that samples and mixes from a multitude of sources to create something new.  "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity," Hegemann said in a statement.  Similarly, in David Shields' recent book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, he calls for a revolution in literature that would allow writers freely to plagiarize from others so as to avoid being "constrained within a form."  "The novel is dead," Shields declares.  "Long live the antinovel, built from scraps."

In all of these cases the medium that allows for liberal sampling and stealing is technology, particularly the Internet.  Kouwe and Posner both blamed it for their plagiarism, while Hegemann and Shields praise it for its wealth of artistic raw material.  In fact, what each of these cases suggests is a broader shift in our understanding of personal responsibility and an abandonment of patience in the digital age.  The speed and power of the Internet is now invoked to justify behavior that a generation ago would have been considered unethical, but today we are urged to embrace it as a revolution in technique rather than a failure of character.

This is particularly true of younger generations raised with the Internet:  numerous surveys conducted in the past ten years have noted a rise in college students' willingness to cheat and plagiarize.  A 2001 study by Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, published in Ethics & Behavior, concluded, "cheating is prevalent and that some forms of cheating have increased dramatically in the last 30 years."  [ LINK: http://www.swarthmore.edu/NatSci/cpurrin1/plagiarismdocs/McCabe_et_al.pdf

When questioned about their plagiarism, many students cite the relentless pressure to perform as their justification.  Raised to multitask, they value speed and efficiency over deliberation.

This tendency is not limited to the young.  As Farhad Manjoo demonstrates in his excellent book, True Enough, everyone's understanding of honesty has changed dramatically in the digital age; although the Internet grants us access to a vast amount of good information, we have also witnessed far greater flourishing of paranoid conspiracy theorizing and untruth.  Just a few weeks ago, publisher Henry Holt had to halt printing of a new book about Hiroshima by writer Charles Pellegrino after it proved to have unverifiable statements and possible fabrications.  When pressed by a reporter about the implications of publishing falsified history, however, Mr. Pellegrino's editor was surprisingly sanguine:  "The difference between fact and fiction is a very fine line," he assured the New York Times.

Some observers argue that we need not police this line so rigorously.  In an Internet age, our norms will have to shift; we'll simply have to become more accepting of plagiarism and pastiche-style writing because it is impossible to avoid.  After all, if so much information is free, why not freely use it?  In My Word!, a recent book about plagiarism and college culture, author Susan Blum urges us to view plagiarism not as theft, but as postmodern "patchwriting" and "intertextuality" that students knowingly practice as a form of homage.

This is a kind of technologically enabled moral relativism.  In fact, in an age where our technologies allow us access to a broader range of creative work but also a great deal more ease at ferreting out imposters and plagiarists, fostering personal responsibility is more important than ever.  We should be more, not less rigorous, about giving other writers proper attribution and we should encourage patience and deliberation, not speed and efficiency, particularly in younger generations who came of age using the Internet.  They take the extraordinary benefits of this technology for granted and have not yet been fully awakened to its potential vices.  As well, impatience with traditional standards of truth and attribution isn't a mark of a more sophisticated culture.  Rather, it suggests a deep cynicism about the kind of singular artistic vision that is vital to culture.  Of Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, David Shields urges, "ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice."   

For an increasing number of us who spend our days working in front of the screen, cultivating patience in the digital age isn't merely a protection against professional missteps but an act of self-preservation.  Like factory workers who organize deliberate slowdowns of work on the factory floor to protest unreasonable working conditions, we should regularly seek respite from the relentless pace of digital culture.  Only by cultivating a life away from the screen can we hope to use it creatively.  And only by reinforcing, not rejecting, traditional standards of truth and attribution-and using the many opportunities the Internet gives us to do that-can we make the most of the incredible power this technology gives us.

 

 

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