Read This, Skip That. No, Maybe Read Both!

My fellow South Floridian Gerald Posner has gotten himself into quite a pickle at the Daily Beast after accusations of plagiarism:

Last Friday, Jack Shafer in Slate ran an article pinpointing five sentences from one of my stories in The Daily Beast, which I admitted met the definition of plagiarism and I accepted full responsibility for that error, an incident I called “accidental plagiarism.” On Monday, he had found other examples, and although I disagreed with some of his characterizations, I again accepted full accountability…

This afternoon I received a call from Edward Felsenthal, the excellent managing editor of The Daily Beast. He informed me that as part of the Beast’s internal investigation, they had uncovered more instances in earlier articles of mine in which there the same problems of apparent plagiarism as the ones originally brought to life last Friday by Shafer. I instantly offered my resignation and Edward accepted.

The Daily Beast’s motto is “Read This. Skip That.”  With plagiarism, you can read both and get the same thing, which means (in theory) that one is unnecessary.

As a part time academic, I am always on the lookout for student work that has the look of “déja vu all over again.”  In that setting, plagiarism translates into a student getting a grade without learning what they’re supposed to.  I have to admit that, in this age of cut and paste, it’s a lot easier to do, but it doesn’t change the reality.

In journalism and book writing, the biggest problem in plagiarism is twofold: it fails to acknowledge the source and it runs into copyright problems.  In the ancient world most historians were reticent about acknowledging their sources, weaving whatever sources they had into a narrative whose veracity isn’t always easy to check (the likes of Herodotus, Thucydides and Tacitus come to mind.)  It was the Christian Eusebius of Caesarea who started the trend by quoting acknowledged sources verbatim. This could be taken as somewhat lazy but, in some ways, set the standard for subsequent writers of all kinds.  (He also set the standard for a heavy, verbose writing style, but that’s for another post…)

The Beast, however, should cut him some slack.  Don’t they have a column called “The Cheat Sheet?”

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