What counts as plagiarism?

I’m not sure what to think about this.

There’s this C J Werleman guy, who has been accused of plagiarism. I’ve been seeing mutterings about it in passing for a few days, without following them up, because he’s not someone I’ve been aware of. But PZ has a post about the subject today and I read that, so then I read his source, which is Godless Spellchecker.


But he has done the unforgivable: serial plagiarism, and when caught out, has apologized, but simultaneously belittled the seriousness of the offense and blamed it on a campaign by our little neo-conservative atheist cabal of Harris and Boghossian.

I agree that they are wrong about so much else, but when they’re right, they’re right, galling as it is. This is a situation that requires much more reflection and far greater amends than Werleman has given it. He has also effectively written himself out of any of the debates, internal or external, about atheism.

Ok, but then when I read Godless Spellchecker’s examples, I had doubts. That’s because much journalism, in magazines and in books, does what Werleman seems to have done: draw on the work of other people without full citation.

The conventions in non-scholarly magazines and books just aren’t the same as the conventions in scholarly journals and books. It’s surprising and disconcerting, actually, to notice how loose they are, but they are in fact that loose.

The place I first recall noticing how different the conventions are is a long article by Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker, about Franz Boas. It was published in 2004 so that makes a lot of sense, because guess what I was doing in 2004: writing Why Truth Matters [with a co-author] for an academic publisher. I had naturally developed a heightened awareness of When You Need to Cite Your Source, so reading that obviously very researched article that was citation-free caused me to realize for the first time how radically different the conventions are. I puzzled over it. It felt very odd and wrong, to be using so much material without sourcing it, but at the same time I realized it was wholly conventional.

The fact that it’s conventional doesn’t make it right, and people who write books do chafe at the use sometimes made of their work without due credit. More than one person has objected to Christopher Hitchens’s habits in this area – his Mother Teresa book in particular was apparently heavily based on the work of other people, without proper citation.

But if it is conventional it probably doesn’t really qualify as plagiarism, right?

I’m honestly not sure. I have no stake, because as I mentioned, I’m not familiar with Werleman. I’m somewhat puzzled about the whole thing.


  1. Kevin Kehres says

    There’s a continuum…

    Original work >>> direct quotations from original work citing the author(s) >>> paraphrase of original work citing the authors >>> rewrite of original work not necessarily citing authors (because the bit being rewritten is not proprietary) >>> lifting phrases wholesale from original work without citing the source (this is where plagiarism starts rearing its ugly head) >>> essentially lifting an entire body of work and presenting it as your own original work (this is copyright infringement).

    Those lines get blurry. There’s the whole “fair use” thing in the copyright law. There are instances in my professional work where I do lift a very specifically worded phrase (clinical trial designs and such) because to change the words and word order is by definition to change the meaning. I attribute it to the source, of course, but if you ran it through one of these plagiarism filters, it’d light up like a Christmas tree.

    There’s also “convergent evolution,” if you will. Sometimes, the way you say something is the way someone else has said something about the same thing. Only so many words and choices about word order can convey the meaning. Unless we all devolve into Yoda-speak — avoid plagiarism, we must.

    I mentioned over at PZs that I used to be a print journalist — and I lost track of how many times the nightly TV news would essentially read my original piece out loud without giving me or my paper attribution. They just stole my work. Period. Damn near every night. Wasn’t thing one I could do about it. Sometimes, it’s like that.

    But honestly, I think that if you’re in journalism and someone else has done some original bit of research and you use it, it’s more than common courtesy to acknowledge that. If it’s an opinion piece and you like their phraseology, then quote them and attribute. It’s not that difficult. The only gray area I see is if you like their idea but not their words — attribute or don’t — but no idea is 100% original (not even this one).

    I looked at those examples, and frankly, it bespeaks sloppy attribution more than an attempt to “defraud” the public by passing off someone else’s work as their own. One or two sentences out of an entire piece? Just attribute and move on. People will actually think better of you for it, because it’s a sign you’re “well read”.

    Heck, even the “news crawls” on ESPN will give an announcement and then acknowledge who the first outlet was to report it. It just isn’t that onerous a requirement.

    Of course, if you’re quoting from a journalist who has done some bit of original research, there’s also the requirement (in my mind, at least), of going to the original source and verifying the accuracy of the original report. Because … well … oftentimes the first report is at best muddled in their understanding of what the original source said, and at worst a complete bass-ackwards interpretation. Then, it’s damage control all around.

    Tl;dr — it’s a continuum (to plagiarize myself).

  2. says

    I saw your comment at PZ’s, and was shocked that tv news people do that.

    I agree with you that it’s more than common courtesy to acknowledge the work of others if you use it…but I suspect that magazine editors just plain don’t allow it, because it doesn’t flow as smoothly that way.

  3. says

    I don’t see any gray are here. So many of those examples involve Werleman typing CTRL-C and CTRL-V. You just don’t do that without putting quotes around the words. It’s not an iissue of scholarly practice vs. journalist practice. This would even be unacceptable in a FB post, because it’s dishonest.

  4. says

    It’s not so much the lack of citations — I agree, editors at popular news sites do not want you littering your text with citations — but that there are whole long, complex sentences that are taken straight from another source. You really can’t do that accidentally. There are appropriate ways to do that, using the conventions of those things called “quotation marks”, but leaving those off and giving the impression that the words are your very own, crafted carefully and thoughtfully, is a no-no.

    Of course what we often do in these kinds of works is to use the ideas of another author: if I’m writing a summary of a science paper, for instance, I haven’t done the experiments so I have to get it all from the original author, and sometimes they say so well what the gist of the work is that it’s tempting to just use their words. Then I blockquote it. But also often what I’ll do is think about what they’re saying, and I’ll insert a summary in the middle of my rough draft: “next: explain that so and so think such and such about this and that, and their explanation is X, Y, and Z”, and then later I’ll expand that to be clearer without trying to pull quotes literally from the paper.

    That’s another danger. I teach a science writing course every other year, and one of the things I tell students is to NEVER copy-and-paste a chunk from a source with the intent of rewriting it later. Too often what happens is you do that, and later shows up at your door in the form of an editor demanding copy right now, and boom, you just say, “heck with another rewrite”, and ship it. Congratulations, you just plagiarized. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s what happened to Werleman.

  5. says

    Yes. If I remember correctly that’s similar to what Doris Kearns Goodwin said about her (alleged) plagiarisms – that notes got muddled such that what she thought was a paraphrase was actually a quoted passage.

    The word-for-word passages are damning. The re-worded ones seem to be within the apparent standards of journalism – but they really shouldn’t be.

  6. MyaR says

    Given that they seem to have been written for an electronic medium, linking would also be a good citation methodology that doesn’t interfere with readability. Given that a lot of the cited works are also electronic and therefore linkable, that seems less of an excuse. And Salon and Alternet certainly publish plenty of articles with lots of hyperlinks.

    It’s sad, because it does look like it could be sloppiness, and because the source’s reasons for plagiarism-hunting seem a bit distasteful. (He pretty clearly identifies him(?)self as being pretty firmly on a side of the “deep rifts”, and I don’t believe his “I thought this all sounded vaguely familiar, like I’d read the words before”. <– not an actual direct quote, because I'm too lazy to go open up a tab again and find his(?) actual words. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's as close as the wording on some of his examples, which are sort of obsessive. He'd actually have made a stronger case with FEWER examples, since some are more marginal and as easily attributed to unintentional or coincidental causes.)

  7. says

    Werleman literally pastes conclusions and insights from other writers without even the pretense of attribution in more than a “half dozen” instances. He presents them as his own prose and his own insights. He does this repeatedly, because of his aspirations as a public thinker, ready to dazzle his audience with observations about the world around them

    I’m sorry, having just completed a long form magazine article myself and remembering the countless hours spent verifying every claimed fact, I have no sympathy for someone who tries to spin off the ideas of better written journalists and writers as his own. That this may be common practice, even among supposedly liberal firebrands like Chris Hedges and Fareed Zakaria, in magazine circles is not a good defense of Werleman, it’s a condemnation of the magazine world.

  8. says

    As Kevin hints above, there is Good and Bad on the plagal side: Bad plagiarism is when, say, a student spends five minutes mindlessly searching on the internet for some topic and copies it in toto, and then changes a few bits and generally messes up the spelling (to add authenticity) and then submits it in the hope of credit (“Hey Dude it’s worth at least a B-minus”).
    But then there is good plagiarism: which is what I do.

    Good plagiarism is literary name-dropping without the names.
    Indeed it’s a sport!—A highly-skilled, demanding and quite often dangerous sport.
    It’s also a way of separating the literary men from the boys, though I fear of late it’s become a way of literarily separating the men from the Americans.
    You see Plagiarophobia is beyond a doubt the defining Literary American Disease, but more of that later.

    You see the other day I happened to pick up the book of lectures and essays by J R R Tolkien that I’m currently re-reading and even more happenedingly started the last one–his Valedictory address at Oxford. By the time I was onto the second page I had spotted JRR slipping in, and right out of the blue, “if the ranks of Tuscany should feel inclined to cheer” which seems an odd thing to say to people from Oxfordshire till you remember (as would most educated Britons of a certain age) “And even the ranks of Tuscany / Could scarce forbear to cheer ” from Macaulay’s Horatio-pontic lay of Ancient Rome and you realise Mr T pinched it; and then, right after it on the same page there were several others (the exposing of which time forces me to leave as an exercise for the whatnot); and I’m sure there were even more that no doubt I missed not being as much of a real literary man as Tolkien. But…


    Though time was (by the way I pinched that from Alistair Cooke), time was, even here; when taking bits out of other peoples works, preferably without attribution was not looked upon as evil, but as a good thing—a bit of plagiarism was a lovesome thing God wot, and if you weren’t up to the challenge of spotting the stolen bits then you shouldn’t be reading the literature .

    But now-a-days and here-abouts in those profound dull tunnels which titanic bores have groyned, nobody seems to read anything worth learning; and so we have lost those more athletic parts of the study of literature, so that many a literate American is perhaps less familiar with absolutely everything than one might, under ideal circumstances, desire, so that in America today, apart from some of the more gaudy forms of murder, plagiarism is the ne plus ultra of evil, and the plagiarist is to the modern literary American mind at least as bad as Vlad the Impaler.

    Now that I’ve mentioned murder, and in the same breath as plagiarism too, I think that at last we’ve hit our target because in its earlier Anglo-Saxon and Germanic history murder wasn’t just wilful bumping off it was bumping off done secretly, and especially bumping off done at night, when, in those days before electric lighting, the poor sap couldn’t see what was coming. The relative enormity of night killing (as distinct from, say, afternoon killing which was usually OK in the early Middle Ages) lay in this blindside-ly character.

    ‘Then’ said Arinbjorn: ‘The king should not yield to be urged to this shameful deed. He should not let Egil be killed at night, because killing by night is murder and not attributing this quote is plagiarism.’

  9. Kevin Kehres says

    @3 Ryan…

    I agree, that’s what it looks like to me as well…thing is, if he had merely typed in [blockquote] before and after, his problem disappears in a puff of non-existent smoke. With hyperlink, or some other way to identify who first said the thing in question. Plus, attributing those statements to someone else protects him if it turns out the source material was wrong about the facts. Gives the fact-checkers something to hang their hats on as well (assuming the outlets that published his stuff had such rare and secretive creatures).

    And it’s not like the examples cited are really all that important in the grand scheme of things. It would take me less than 30 seconds to completely rewrite every one of them so they could not be tied to any recognizable source. Less time than that to give each one its appropriate attribution.

    I think PZ is on the right track — Werleman’s SOP seems to have been to do copypasta intending to rewrite, but somehow things slipped through.

    It’s laziness. Not duplicity.

    A corollary to Hanlon’s razor: Never suspect deliberate plagiarism when incompetence will suffice. Of course, journalistic laziness is just as much a career killer; so I don’t think I’m doing Werleman any favors in that regard.

  10. Karen Locke says

    Interesting. Most of my recent writing has been scientific, so I’m hyperaware of the rules for attribution in science papers. But I don’t think much about attribution when I read general-readership stuff, except to swear “did the author research that or pull it out of his rear?” occasionally. I’d never realized that before.

    A friend of mine teaches upper-division college science classes for non-majors. She struggles to teach her students not to plagiarize. Some certainly do it out of laziness, but she’s convinced most really don’t understand why it’s important to attribute correctly. Some are not native English speakers, and they argue that their source says it far better than they can; why muddle things by putting it in their own words? Others are just convinced that it’s an unreasonable demand that makes their lives more difficult. Certainly the lack of attribution in the stuff they read day-to-day doesn’t help.

  11. Henrik Larsson says

    Very useful thread. Thank you.

    Can I just reflect on that this sad little episode perhaps partly also probably shines an unforgiving spotlight on the current hive mind culture? What is “trending” is also an invitation to think what others are already thinking. No time to be truly original, that sort of thing.
    I am sometimes asked not to cite wisdom properly attributed to other people in a friendly-ish dinnerconversation but rather offer up my own opinion. To this I tend to reply that I am not sure where my own opinions come from and where my knowledge and ideas are derivatives of everything I have read in a long life. Part joke part true of course for most of us I would assume.
    On some subjects I myself typically prefer other people’s wisdom to my own stabs at grandure, properly attributed if possible and there is not the attentionspan of gnats culture that guides social life on that day. It seems to me that Werleman is a child of his time. His aim might still be true as far as I am concerned. The singularity of the hive mind is near;)

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