Claiming as one's own what one knows to be the discovery, idea, or writing of another is certainly plagiarism. But what about merely failing to acknowledge the work of another where one does not give the impression that the discovery is one's own? Does it matter how one came upon the knowledge in question, whether in a book, as a referee for a journal, or from private correspondence? Does it matter how easy it was to make the discovery? This is a gray area both in research ethics and in professorial ethics.
While I shall be concerned with this gray area here, I shall not try to provide a definitive answer to the questions just posed. Instead, I shall describe what happened when an independent scholar, believing himself to be the victim of “gray” plagiarism, sought a forum in which to make his complaint. What happened suggests a need to think more deeply about how we assign credit within the university and to scholars outside and about what how we should respond to complaints about misassignment of credit.
My story begins with a footnote in the history of mathematics. The July 1983 issue of Annals of the History of Computing carried an article entitled “Babbage's Letter to Quetelet, May 1835.” The article's heart was a modern translation into English of a much older French translation from English. The French translation, printed in 1835 in the Bulletin of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences of Brussels, is significant because it contains the first mention in print of Babbage's Analytical Engine, a precursor of today's computer. 1 The “Babbage” of my title is the author of that letter (the same Babbage who wrote Reflections on the Decline of Science in England). One of my title's “kings” is the present King of