Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson is being accused of plagiarism in her latest book, the latest in a string of high profile authors who have been accused of such things. It always baffles me when experienced writers are accused of plagiarism. If deliberate, you would think that they would be smart enough to realize that they would be caught, given their fame and the wide readership their works will have, and the fact that they have usually not quoted from obscure archival material but contemporary ones. My guess is that at least for some of these people, the plagiarism is inadvertent, when they have internalized someone’s words to the extent that they have forgotten where it came from and think it is their own.
I remember the time when a colleague at my university introduced me to his wife and as we shook hands, she said, “Ah, the writer!” I was startled because one tends to identify oneself with one’s occupation and I have never made my living as a writer. Up until that moment I had my primary self-image as being a ‘physicist’ or ‘teacher/educator’. But I thought for a bit and realized that I had written three books by then, many published articles, and kept up a fairly prolific writing schedule with my blog. So the label was not entirely unwarranted but I still never use it myself.
But one of the things I learned about being a writer is that one must write. That seems obvious but is not so even for people like academics where writing is necessary but not the primary day-to-day occupation. For many such people, they need to write, like the idea of writing, enjoy having written, but shy away from sitting down right now and writing. I tell my colleagues that it is important to have a daily regimen of writing, whether it be writing drafts of manuscripts or compiling notes for future use. For the last ten years or more, I have been setting aside several hours a day to writing, without fail. Almost all my books and articles have emerged as a result of this regimen, even though they did not start out being envisaged as having that end purpose.
Writing a book takes a long time and requires copious notes and rewrites. The catch with making extensive notes far ahead of actually sending it out for publication is that it is easy to forget that the words are not your own. One has to be careful about inadvertent plagiarism, where one makes notes of something one has read and, a long time later when preparing a manuscript, inserts that prewritten text but forget that the words and ideas were not one’s own.
In order to avoid that pitfall, whenever I make notes, I immediately add a citation to the source so that I will not forget. If it is a direct quote, I put it in quote marks. As much as possible I use direct quotes from a source rather than a paraphrase. The danger with paraphrasing is that after some time, when re-reading the words one can think that the ideas are one’s own and not those of someone else. A fellow teacher said that she told her students to paraphrase and not quote directly, the very opposite of my advice to my own students. I see no virtue in paraphrasing other than to tell the reader that you understood what the original author said. The major downside is that whenever you paraphrase, you are altering the author’s meaning in some way.
A lot of students are hesitant to cite other authors extensively in their papers because they feel that this diminishes the size of their own contribution. I tell them that a lot of writing involves shaping a range of ideas into a coherent single work and that shaping process is where much of the originality arises, not necessarily in the ideas themselves. I tell them that, when in doubt as to whether to cite or not, to always choose citing, without exception. Not being thought to be very original is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The alternative, being thought of as a plagiarist, is terrible for a writer.