Taking a Page out of Another's Book ; with Two Bestselling Historians Caught in Plagiarism Scandals, Some Ask, 'Are There New Rules for Writers in the Internet Age?'

By Samar Farah writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Taking a Page out of Another's Book ; with Two Bestselling Historians Caught in Plagiarism Scandals, Some Ask, 'Are There New Rules for Writers in the Internet Age?'


Samar Farah writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Peter Kilduff can't say it enough. When in doubt, throw a couple of quotes around it. Slap on a footnote.

The military historian, who writes a book every two or three years for British publisher Orion Cassell, says he'll pursue the smallest inkling that a rhetorical curlicue is not his own. Slow and careful is how he describes his method. If it turns out that flourish belongs to another writer? "It's not a dishonorable thing to put quotes," he says. "They're so easy to do."

But Kolleen Guy, who is one conclusion away from finishing a book on the history of champagne for the Johns Hopkins University Press, says it takes only one "off" day - out of years of poring over notes - to forget a pair of quotes and damage a reputation.

Such a lapse was Doris Kearns Goodwin's explanation last week for lifting passages almost verbatim from another author without attribution in her 1987 book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys."

Ms. Goodwin took responsibility for the error. Now, she says, she uses a computer to keep better track of her sources and research.

But to some, the confession, coming on the heels of a similar offense by prolific author Stephen Ambrose, was emblematic of a decline in high standards. It also highlighted complex issues linked to certain peculiarities of the Information Age.

The cut-and-paste capabilities of the computer, along with ready access to the rich resources of the Internet, have changed the work habits of practically every writer. Authors, especially historians, are trying harder than ever to appeal to a popular audience and to rush work out to satisfy the voracious appetite for new works. Perhaps most important, a new generation weaned on Napster is aiming electronically charged darts at traditional ideas of ownership.

The result at times is a blurring of traditionally accepted notions of proprietary information and scholarly accuracy. To some, who feel issues of ownership and originality are things of the past, it's much ado about nothing. But traditionalists worry that relaxed standards, time constraints, and pressure from publishers not to "bog down" a text in footnotes will lead more individuals to question the integrity of a broad range of books.

It's a high-tech problem

Unlike Goodwin, most writers seem to feel that technology only compounds the risk of error. The ease of cutting and pasting notes may make them less inclined to paraphrase. Others say it's tempting to put off double-checking sources, as the ease of confirming information on the Internet means that, unlike a trip to the library, it can be put off to a free moment - and also easily forgotten.

That's why many writers, like Dr. Guy and even the "always look twice before you cross" Mr. Kilduff, not only believe Goodwin and Mr. Ambrose didn't intend to plagiarize, they empathize. "I can see where it could happen," Kilduff says.

Not everyone, of course, believes in inadvertent word theft. "It strains credulity that these things are accidents," says Steve Weinberg, a nonfiction author whose work includes "Armand Hammer: Untold Story." He says he rereads every single line of his books before publication. The "I hit the wrong button" plea he finds least convincing of all.

The popular approach

Also complicating matters for conscientious writers, especially historians, is a publishing world that increasingly caters to popular audiences. Even academic presses, like Johns Hopkins, are going after a slice of popular pie with what insiders call "bridge books."

The writer who switches from academic monographs to more mainstream writing could be in for footnote culture shock. "Academics live for the footnote," says Tom Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Citation is a lively subtext for scholars, and it's also how they demonstrate they've considered all sources. …

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