When Wired editor Chris Anderson found himself accused on the Virginia Quarterly Review blog of lifting passages from Wikipedia entries and other published sources in his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, he inadvertently revealed some of the most awkward truths about reading and writing in a digital environment. In our recent obsession with plagiarism, originality and copyright, we have conflated the sin of borrowing passages with the crime of copyright infringement. We have forgotten that all text relies on previous text—that it takes a library to write a book. But we have also forgotten the most important thing about plagiarism in serious nonfiction: it is an offense against readers, not writers.
When plagiarism occurs, sources usually suffer no measurable harm. The source might incur an opportunity cost, as some could benefit from a reputation enhancement. And in a zero-sum economy of reputation, say, between scientists competing for grant money and promotions, plagiarism can certainly harm the source. More often than not, however, the source of the plagiarized material just feels bad. That's trivial when compared to the cost to readers. When a nonfiction writer fails to cite sources, a contract of trust is breached. Readers must be able to challenge and certify an author's claims, and trust that the writer is being honest and careful with his sources.
Despite the moral panic generated by high-profile cases like Anderson's, and the ease of checking for similarities among digital sources, we don't have a plagiarism problem in nonfiction writing. We have an accountability problem. Two recent trends directly contribute to this breakdown: a push by publishers to omit notes from works of serious nonfiction, and writers' habits of pasting text from sources into a document and then rewriting it in their own words, often failing to rewrite enough to hide the original source. That problem exists whether or not the writer actually plagiarizes. The copy-paste-rewrite method of composition—on which Anderson clearly relied—is simply a bad way to write. Unfortunately, it's all too common now that so much text is available electronically.
The move to omit notes in serious nonfiction books is proliferating. The only frustrating aspect of Tony Judt's brilliant historical synthesis, Postwar (Penguin Press, 2005), for example, is its lack of notes. Publishers must realize that the omission of notes treats readers dishonestly and disrespectfully. It denies readers the chance to really engage with a work, to revise, extend, criticize and challenge it. In his defense, Anderson traced his errors back to Hyperion's decision to strip the endnotes from Free (his previous book with Hyperion, The Long Tail, contains scant endnotes). Publishers must remember that source notes and references are an essential service to readers.
Anderson's situation has unfolded within the context of unjustified mania about plagiarism. Newspapers obsess over textual echoes in Bob Dylan's songs. Professors run student papers through computer programs to catch borrowing. But textual plagiarism in many cases is the moral equivalent of jaywalking: it should be denounced when serious, but it is a violation of the norms of a reading community, not the law. Anderson's sins here are relevant because they demonstrate laziness and disrespect—not dishonesty.
As Mark Twain wrote to Helen Keller when she was accused of lifting (from memory, of course) elements of works she had read and using them in her own: “As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism.” Twain, a fiction writer, was correct in the context of his art. Anderson, however, works in a different field. He writes successful nonfiction books about interesting and pressing issues. I have assigned his books in my courses because they are accessible, important and easy to argue with and about. His mistakes here are an offense to his readers and the craft of writing, but not to the sources he failed to properly cite. That may be the most widely misunderstood issue in the emerging “gotcha” culture of plagiarism revelation.
There is a reason why Wikipedia itself demands its contributors cite reliable published sources, because citing published sources engenders trust among readers. If that standard is good enough for Wikipedia, why isn't it good enough for Anderson and Hyperion? Anderson, who understands the power of hyperlinks to make Web discourse both accountable and lively, should understand that better than anyone.
|Siva Vaidhyanathan is an associate professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia and is completing a book, The Googlization of Everything.|