Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two Brief Thursday Night Notes

* The newest early modern version of Carnivalesque is up at "Blogging the Renaissance"; I haven't read them all by any means, but I notice in particular that Margery Kempe gets a fair and sympathetic appraisal by Natalie Bennett -- she's too often and too easily dismissed, when, despite her obvious foibles, there's much to be said in her favor.

* Several academic blogs are discussing the notion of 'citation plagiarism'. See Bill Poser, Kerim, Tim Burke, and Miriam Burstein. I think it's pretty clear that 'citation plagiarism', while problematic, is not plagiarism at all (except where translations are involved, but that's for unrelated reasons). One of the reasons I think this is so is that it would seem that such 'plagiarism' could in certain cases cease to be plagiarism without any change to the text -- namely, if the author of the paper went back and checked the quotation. But it seems to me to make nonsense of the notion of plagiarism, which, if it is to serve its purpose -- providing a usable concept for guarding the academic reputation and (in some cases) money of those who did the original work -- must be something reasonably discernible from the text itself, which is the only objective evidence available. I think it also starts treating too much of what scholars should have in common as proprietary. Consider the following scenarios:

(a) A finds the quotation in the source on his or her own.
(b) A is introduced to the quotation by B in casual conversation, and uses it without checking it and without crediting B in any way.
(c) A is introduced to the quotation by B in casual conversation, and uses it after checking it, but without crediting B in any way.
(d) A discovers the quotation in a paper by B and uses it without checking it and without crediting B in any way.
(e) A discovers the quotation in a paper by B and uses it after checking it, without crediting B in any way.

Now, if 'citation plagiarism' is genuine plagiarism, (b)-(e) should all be considered plagiarism. After all, the mere fact that I've done my own work doesn't change other plagiarisms; if I plagiarize B but only because I've done all the scholarly work to know that B is quite right, I'm still engaged in plagiarism, because plagiarism has nothing to do with how much or how little scholarly work I have done in the matter, and everything to do with how I am using B's work. But there seems to be a tendency to think that 'citation plagiarism' can cease to be plagiarism, without any change in the actual use of B's work, if only I put in a little more research to check that it's right. And that just doesn't fly in cases of real plagiarism. On the other side, it's clear that (c) can't be plagiarism, because treating it as such would grind scholarly work to a halt (thus defeating the very purpose of using the notion of plagiarism, since it's to preserve reputation and, in some cases, money accruing to original work). Scholars can't be expected to keep detailed track of the source of every idea that comes into their heads. Some cases of (c) will be cases of radical professional discourtesy; but most cases of (c) are harmless, and, I would wager, utterly common. This clearly matters; but it shouldn't if plagiarism is really at stake. There is a further point that in general there is no way to adjudicate the matter: (a)-(e) are textually indistinguishable for all cases where B was accurate, and in many cases where B was not. Not only do we have to allow for converging errors, we have to allow for the possibility of cross-contamination -- where A did the work, but mistakenly revised or transcribed the quotation because he was primed by having also come into contact with B's work. The cases in which the evidence will be clear enough that we can say definitely that there was a genuine instance will be rare and few. And this is a practical reason for not considering it plagiarism, because academic life requires that the notion of plagiarism be reasonably clear and usable, and that it admit of non-arbitrary adjudication where questions arise.

That was a little less brief than I intended.

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