The Problem of Plagiarism

I want to start by saying that I have immense respect for Fareed Zakaria regardless of the allegations made against him and I think that most of that respect will stay in tact unless more serious allegations are made with more evidence to back them up.  That being said, Zakaria needs to apologize for lifting a full paragraph from his Time piece on gun control.  There is no more serious allegation to be faced with as a writer than that of plagiarism and it needs to be addressed regardless of Zakaria’s stature, body of work and respect within the community.  Zakaria is an accomplished journalist, but he doesn’t have the training in historical research methods that would normally prevent this kind of mistake.  I’ll let my readers decide for themselves just how big of an ethical transgression Zakaria committed by showing the two paragraphs that were published in their entirety below.  Zakaria is accused of lifting the passage below from Jill Lepore, a writer for The New Yorker, in her piece, she wrote:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Zakaria wrote the following:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

The two are remarkably similar and the only differences appear to be that of syntax.  The main question that I have here is the question that most normal people have when it comes to ethical questions and that is “why?”  Why would you lift a paragraph that could so easily be condensed and re-written to 1) make a better point and 2) not cheat and steal someone else’s work and claiming it as your own?  It seems to me that Zakaria most likely thought that his changes in formatting and wording would make the changes indistinguishable.  The question thus goes back to “why?”  I simply cannot believe that a man with Zakaria’s mind and unique way of looking at the world would lift just one paragraph for a major piece on a controversial topic.  This leads me to an area that I don’t want to go into, but unfortunately have to get into and that is: “where is the rest?”  Just as it is true in crime that there is often more crimes perpetrated by a criminal than he is arrested for there are most likely more examples of Zakaria’s plagiarism than just this one and most media accounts take note of the fact that Zakaria has been criticized for “methods” that aren’t “conventional,” but they’ve avoided the word “plagiarism” obviously because of it’s very severe connotations.

The unfortunate consequence of all of this is that now Zakaria’s entire body of work that he has put together over his entire career need to be examined.  As I said before usually when an author commits the cardinal sin of writing by plagiarizing another’s work it is not an isolated incident.  My guess is that we will find more instances in Zakaria’s backlog, but we should withhold judgment of Zakaria until a full documentation and examination of his work is completed.  In almost every profession, one is required to examine serious issues related to ethics and at least one case of someone bending the rules to an unacceptable degree.  As a historian, I looked at the career of historian Stephen Ambrose, a writer whose work I respected until I discovered that much of his work had been plagiarized.

Many things can cause ethical transgressions in history just as there are myriad issues at play in any ethical scandal.  The chief issues that are at play when it comes to ethics range from simply cutting corners to deliberately distorting the facts.  Stephen Ambrose has had a relatively prolific career, but because he has been guilty of either sloppy research or wholesale plagiarism his career has been at the very least tarnished if not completely discredited altogether.  I don’t worry about the problem that Stephen Ambrose faces because he’s built up an empire and he’s made plenty of money off of what he’s done, if he felt that the issue was significant enough to his historical legacy then he would address it in a more serious manner, but his career won’t end because of the scandals surrounding his writing.

What I worry about are the history students who look up to Ambrose and more importantly those who look at his methods as something that could be copied successfully perhaps with “just a tweak here or there.”  When you engage in fraud whether it is wholesale or partial you’ve done something wrong and when you do something wrong you have to admit guilt, fix the mistake and set an example for those who could potentially fall into the same trap that you did.  Stephen Ambrose owes it to the historical community to admit his mistakes, explain how they came about, and do something to ensure that historians don’t repeat his mistakes in the future.  So many mistakes that we make are honest mistakes that can be corrected, but uncorrected mistakes lead to bad conduct that isn’t simply wrong because we say it is wrong, it’s wrong because at that point it is done with sinister intent.

This is a serious issue.  There is no more serious issue in writing than that of plagiarism and most media outlets have a zero tolerance policy for plagiarists, but still special allowances are often made for people who have built up a longstanding following of fans or people who have a unique outlook on the world that would be difficult to replicate with a different writer.  Fareed Zakaria’s case will likely be recognized as one of these special cases and I would expect that he can resume his career with little fallout as a result of this, but Zakaria owes it to the journalistic community and to his profession as a whole to be honest about what he’s done in the past just as Ambrose had an obligation to the historical community to release his mistakes.  Stephen Ambrose chose to blame his mistakes on things that were “outside of his control” when it was quite clear that he was responsible for the clear misrepresentation of facts.  This is something that is so serious that it should discredit the entirety of his backlog of material and he should have been forced to relinquish all awards given for excellence in his profession.  Unfortunately this was not done in Ambrose’s case, but I hope that a higher standard will be in place here for Zakaria if it is found that widespread plagiarism was a common practice with him as a writer.

There are so many things that we, as writers, can do to prevent plagiarism that it is to me, completely unacceptable when widespread abuse occurs.  I set a threshold of three or more instances of at least two paragraphs or more as the standard for full scale plagiarism when it comes to other authors.  I hold myself to rigorous standards that I don’t think should necessarily be enforced on everyone else because each writer is different and thus it falls to the reader ultimately to determine what is or is not acceptable behavior on the part of an author that he/she chooses to read.  I myself write here on my blog with exclusive material and on expertscolumn.com with material that is given an exclusivity window of seven days.  Any material that I publish on expertscolumn is published exclusively on their website for a full week before anyone else can obtain the rights to that work.  It’s not a standard that is set up contractually with them or anyone else, but it is a standard that I set for myself because I don’t want to mislead my readers.  Ethical conduct must be our first priority as writers.  When we are guilty of breaching the code of ethics we must come forward, admit our mistakes and accept the consequences that our behavior has brought upon us.  To put forth a standard that is not upheld is just as bad as having no standard at all.

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