It is a huge problem, though the philosophical underpinnings of why are all over the map.1 Educators lament it. Schools toss people out for it. Yet it continues. Jayson Blair was fired by The New York Times for it. Stephen Ambrose admitted to it. Janet Dailey was called on it by Nora Roberts. Alex Haley paid Harold Courlander a six-figure sum for having purloined Mr. Courlander’s book The African and using it as the basis for the wildly successful Roots. A recent Google® search on the word “plagiarism” yielded 42,601 matching sites.
There is no doubt that plagiarism is with us and even more so in the so-called Internet age. It is offensive in the extreme to academia, especially American academia. Few of us are without memory of student codes of conduct, pledges signed at the ends of tests or research papers asserting that our work is our own. Penalties for infractions are spelled out in great detail in college and university course catalogs, on websites, and in student handbooks. Honor courts are convened where a student can defend him or herself, as was done a couple of years ago at the University of Virginia, where a suspicious professor compared work of some one hundred and sixty-eight Wahoos. Convinced that they were guilty of the academic equivalent of a capital crime, the professor brought them before the University’s honor panel. Once there, students were afforded the very minimum our federal and state constitutions mandate for anyone charged with any infraction civil or criminal, notice and an opportunity to be heard. Some reached plea agreements with the honor court, took their lumps, and moved on. Some fought the charges, as is their right to do, some prevailing, some not. And close to a dozen others entered an insanity plea. That’s right. You read that correctly; an insanity plea.
We need not dwell on this any longer, except to say, that as I recall, Janet Dailey was excoriated in the press for having offered up just that sort of reason for plagiarizing the work of Nora Roberts. Stephen Ambrose was widely quoted as saying that the pressures of producing things for Tinsletown led him astray. Jayson Blair, and before him, Stephen Glass, was fired amid a great embarrassment and “gnashing of teeth” (See Holy Bible), and the dismissal of an editor. Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, simply quit The New York Times when accused of submitting dispatches written by a freelancer to whom not a whisper of credit had been given and took the engineer’s job on the very short, but profitable, Jessica Lynch gravy train. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass wrote books, and Glass made his into a movie, whining all the way to the bank about how tough things were for him. In many cases, as Amy Alexander explores the notion that (among other issues not on point here) in her article in the March 22, 2004 issue of Africana e-zine “Reading Between the Lines: Who’s Sorry Now?," the penalties for plagiarism aren’t really all that stiff. At least, it would seem, not at the higher levels.
In the cases cited here, and many more than we have room or time to discuss here, there is strong evidence toward, or even outright admission of, the offenses charged. But what happens when an author is wrongly accused of the sin of sins in professional writing? What protections exist? Are there any? We will explore that in the next installment of this article.
1 Author’s note: I did not just make that up, “all over the map,” but being unaware of the original source of the phrase, and assuming it to be in the public domain without a perceivable author, and distasteful though I am of cliches, I will use it here nonetheless, as well as others throughout the piece.