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.