I just finished reading a few articles on Slate regarding plagiarism. It seems that once or twice a year, a new story breaks of one writer “borrowing” from another writer. This time, it was sparked by a Harvard sophomore stealing from one of her favorite childhood writers. Whenever we look at this issue though, it is unavoidable to bring up past offenders.
The examples that have been found in the writings of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin are examples of plagiarism using the strict definition of the word. Both authors, and many others like them, were sloppy with quotes and got caught. But in a column about Stephen Ambrose, David Plotz, while not letting Ambrose off the hook, acknowledges that it is difficult for any writer to honestly say they have never inadvertently stolen from another writer. One of the best pieces of advice any writer can get is to read profusely, and mimic writing styles that you like. In that process, it is inevitable that on occasion we borrow too much from one writer or another.
I think what I am saying is that this crime requires a more nuanced view than the zero-tolerance arguments we hear. Goodwin and Ambrose are guilty of trying to pass off quotes for a paraphrase. As far as I can tell, these examples are relatively limited compared to the size of their books. Therefore, most of their work appears to be original and should be thought of as such. Finding mistakes of laziness like these should not lead us to lump them in the same boat with writers who plagiarized everything with nothing original to claim (which is what might be the case with Kaavya Viswanathan).
The problem is that we need to learn from these mistakes, and to learn we need to acknowledge the error. Unfortunately, neither Goodwin nor Ambrose seem to be particularly bothered by what was discovered, and in their attitude they are setting a bad example for any writers that look up to them. Plagiarism, when tolerated and done repeatedly, is harmful to the art of writing. I read Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals and loved it – and I can only hope that she learned from her past experiences and was more careful with her paraphrasing.