By PETER SHAW
The fatal pattern of plagiary
The decade of the 1980s brought forth an unusual number of plagiarism cases, and so far the 1990s seem to be following suit. Some 10 years ago, within a short period of time, a half dozen prominent writers were accused of plagiarism, among them Alex Haley for Roots and Norman Mailer for his biography of Marilyn Monroe. In 1987 the presidential campaign of the Democratic senator from Delaware, Joseph Biden, was brought to an end when it emerged that he had plagiarized part of a speech from British Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock. In 1988 Harvard University professor of psychiatry and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Shervert Frazier, resigned his hospital and academic posts after it was shown that medical journal articles he had written between 1966 and 1975 contained plagiarized passages.
This year two authors have been charged posthumously: first the psychoanalyst Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, for plagiarism in his psychoanalytic study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment; and then Martin Luther King Jr., for plagiarism extending from his doctoral dissertation to his later writings. At Boston University, Dean H. Joachim Maitre of the College of Communication was removed by the President after delivering a commencement address taken almost entirely from a lecture by movie critic Michael Medved. (Remarkably, in a news story on the case in the New York Times, Fox Butterfield improperly copied portions of six paragraphs from the original report in the Boston Globe. The Times issued an apology and suspended Butterfreld for a week.) Finally, there is the still-undecided case of Stephen Oates, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is accused of plagiarizing extensive portions of his 1977 biography, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Harper & Row).
Plagiarism is a phenomenon people ordinarily come to understand only after they have been forced to deal with it. They start off blessedly innocent of plagiarism's unpleasant and peculiar features. This makes them susceptible to the error of regarding the particular case before them as unusual when it may in fact be typical. They are likely to conclude, logically but mistakenly, that a number of apparently unusual circumstances require them to dismiss as unproven the accusation of plagiarism. They may take note, for example, of the fact that the accused plagiarist had no need to steal; that he more than once properly acknowledged the source he is accused of plagiarizing from; or that he convincingly argues in his defense that he at most suffered minor lapses of memory in one or two insignificant instances. Condemnation of the accused therefore hardly seems in order. And yet in the end it can turn out that plagiary was committed after all.
So far the scenario of plagiarism described above has been followed in the Stephen Oates affair. Oates is accused by several scholars of having plagiarized from the late Benjamin P. Thomas' 1952 biography of Lincoln. Oates, a widely published professional biographer of William Faulkner and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, had no need to plagiarize. In a lengthy refutation of his accusers, Oates argues persuasively that all Lincoln biographers share the same body of knowledge and tell to repeat one another. In only three instances does he admit taking words from his predecessor, Thomas, without attribution.
"Frankly I had forgotten that Thomas used the words 'blinding' and 'swirls,' along with 'choking,'" he explains about a passage describing a blizzard. Also, "I had forgotten," he writes, Thomas' description of Lincoln as having "pocketed" a fee. Finally, describing the outbreak of the Black Hawk War, "I had long forgotten Thomas' adjective 'flaming,' when I wrote 'flamed up.'" Elsewhere in his biography, Oates points out, he did footnote Thomas (though not always accurately).
Oates' rebuttal is still being investigated by the American Historical Association. But in the meantime 22 leading Civil War, and Lincoln scholars have examined his defense and declared in a joint letter that the charges of plagiarism are "totally unfounded." Speaking to the Boston Globe, though, one of them revealed that some of those who signed the letter "think Gates could have been more careful."
Such misgivings are typical. Any single, unattributed use of another's words, unless it be the direct copying of an entire passage, is extremely hard to judge with certainty. The charge against Oates is that he closely followed page after page of Thomas' book, disguising his dependence by editing and rephrasing what he took. In no single place, therefore, can one pronounce definitively that what Oates wrote is plagiary.
On the other hand, the Lincoln scholars should have been suspicious of Oates' convenient definition of plagiary as the "verbatim lifting of whole sentences and paragraphs." This is not correct. As the American Historical Association statement on plagiarism indicates, any use "of another person's language and sources without citation" is forbidden. Furthermore, there is "a more subtle" forbidden practice: "the unacknowledged appro-
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priation of concepts, data and footnotes, all disguised in paraphrased or newly crafted sentences." Presumably the association's investigation, unlike the scholars', will rest on these broader definitions.
Dates' defense contained other questionable elements. But even these were of the sort to give one pause. He seemed to demonstrate, for example, that his predecessor, Thomas, stole material from other Lincoln biographers — and that one of these, Carl Sandburg, stole from still others. At the same time, the bills of particulars by the scholars who have accused Oates also contained questionable elements. Indeed, Gates' latest accuser judges a number of passages called plagiarisms by others to be undeserving of that label.
One can well imagine that the Lincoln scholars who decided to exonerate Oates were made uneasy by the presence of several unconvincing charges in the case against him. Yet after one subtracts all of the accusations that may possibly be unwarranted, numerous passages in Gates' book deserve further investigation. It is worth considering that mistakes made by accusers in plagiarism cases may themselves be products of the peculiar psychology of plagiarism. Among other things, coming in contact with plagiary can render one pretenaturally suspicious. One has been placed in a situation, after all, rather like that of the department store employee who accuses a shoplifter of having taken something from the underwear department only to discover stolen socks on his person, but no underwear. The observer, seeing the thief first take the socks, and then handle goods over at underwear, honestly but mistakenly believes he saw something being stolen from the second department as well.
Four psychologies prove to be at play in most cases of plagiarism. First, there is that of the plagiarist, who steals when he does not have to and inexplicably strews obvious clues to his wrongdoing. Second, there is the psychology of his accusers, whose judgment can be clouded so that some of their accusations turn out to be unconvincing. Third, there are those who must judge the case. They tend to resent the accusers for placing them in an uncomfortable situation. (For example, one of the Lincoln scholars suggested that one of Oates' accusers might have acted out of "malice.") Fourth, and last, there is the psychology of the general public. As Edgar Allan Poe observed, "when a plagiarism is detected, it generally happens that the public sympathy is with the plagiarist."
Given these interacting psychological affects among the dramatis personae in the typical case of plagiarism, it is not surprising that controversy and confusion tend to arise. Nor is it surprising that the fog of confusion is rarely lifted by dint of a rational exchange of ideas and evidence. Instead, something quite different usually happens: The accused plagiarist is discovered to have committed the same offense at another time and in another place. Now everything is suddenly changed. The burden of proof shifts from the accusers to the accused. Guilt becomes virtually self-evident, and the case quietly comes to an end. Discussion ceases, since no one wishes to gloat, and no one is anxious to dwell on his own credulity.
It has recently come out that a 1987 reviewer of Oates' biography of William Faulkner accused him of "pernicious habits of appropriation." Oates had, the reviewer showed, followed a previous biography, rephrasing its sentences so as to make them appear to be his own. Taking the hint, another scholar has proceeded to examine Oates' biography of Martin Luther King Jr. He reports finding much the same pattern. This would mean that Oates plagiarized in a book about another plagiarist — a circumstance by no means unknown in the patterns of plagiarism.
In light of these revelations the parallels in the following passages, highlighted by one of Oates' Lincoln biography accusers, become all but impossible to defend. (Thomas' words written in 1952 appear first, followed by Oates' version.)
Thus, at the age of twenty-eight, Lincoln made public avowal of his dislike of slavery, basing his position on moral grounds.... In 1860, in his autobiography, he stated that the protest "briefly defined his position on the slavery question ...."
So at the age of twenty-eight, Lincoln made his first official statement about slavery, the most inflammable issue of his generation, in his 1860 autobiography, he asserted that "A'"s protest "briefly defined his position on the slavery question ...."
It somehow no longer seems plausible that the similar phraseology, together with the choice of the very same quotation (here as in other Oates passages — not only in his Lincoln biography but also in those on Faulkner and King), can really be coincidental.
The lesson of the Oates affair is to reserve judgment on charges of plagiarism until all the facts are in. The charges, especially when as in this instance they come from disinterested observers, are not usually frivolous. This is because the accusers, sensing that they themselves are likely to face hostility, usually come forward only because they feel compelled to make public something they have in advertently run across in the course of research.
To be sure, it is not easy to be put in the position of having to adjudicate an affair of this kind. Society dresses its judges in robes partly in order to reduce some of the personal responsibility connected with pronouncing another human being innocent or guilty. In contrast, those with the responsibility to judge plagiarism are not given any institutional protection. They remain vulnerable both to their own divided feelings and to potential public disapproval.
More crucially, their obligation usually finds them unfamiliar with the fatal patterns of plagiaristic behavior. No wonder their sympathy, like the public's, tends toward the accused and their resentment toward the accusers. By now, though, Lincoln scholars know a good deal more about plagiarism than they did before. It is to be hoped that in the future they — and interested bystanders following the controversy — will be spared the necessity of ever having to draw upon the experience they have gained as a result of the Stephen Oates case.
Peter Shaw was the Will and Ariel Durant Professor of Humanities at St. Peter's College in 1990-91. He is the author of The War Against the Intellect: Episodes in the Decline of Discourse (University of Iowa Press. 1989).
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