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
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
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. …