Saturday, May 20, 2006


I strongly object to the fact that some people define "plagiarism" as broadly as this:
The term "plagiarism" applies to "the imitation of structure, research, and organization," notes Laurie Stearns, a copyright lawyer in "Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Process, Property, and the Law," an essay appearing in the California Law Review in 1992. "Even facts or quotations can be plagiarized," writes Ms. Stearns, "through the trick of citing to a quotation from a primary source rather than to the secondary source in which the plagiarist found it in order to conceal reliance on the secondary source."
Perhaps I should note that I have seen that quotation numerous times; the most recent time, I clicked a link from this page

Now: Isn't that definition of plagiarism a bit too broad?

Let's think about the possible rules and scenarios:

1. Anytime you cite or quote a book/article/source, you are obliged ALSO to cite the book/source/article that first led you there. Thus, if I'm reminded from an op-ed in the Oil Trough, Arkansas Baptist Church newsletter that a particular quotation comes from Shakespeare, then forever after, I can't quote Shakespeare directly; I have to give some sort of credit to the newsletter.

Such a rule would be impossible to implement if you do any sort of meaningful research on a subject. When you research a law review article, for example, you might find one book about your topic in the library; that book cites 20 other books and articles that seem relevant. You go read those, and come back home with a list of 100 books and articles that need to be checked out. After you take the time to investigate those 100 books and articles, you're starting to see a lot of overlap in what sources are cited, but you now have still another 100 books and articles to check out. And so it goes, until it seems like you've reached the end of all the trails (including rabbit trails) that came along.

Now at that point, it would be absolutely unthinkable to try to go back and recreate every source that first led you to another source. And it wouldn't even make sense. If I'm researching judicial review, I would find that lots and lots of people cite James Bradley Thayer's famous article. Why should any one of them get the credit for introducing me to that famous article (even if I could remember where I first heard of it in the first place)?

This rule would also be impossible to enforce. Who on earth could ever know that I first stumbled on Thayer's article from one particular source rather than another?

Moreover, it's not the case that you're passing off someone else's research as your own. When you go back to the original source, that IS doing research of your own.

2. If a source is particularly obscure, such that you might never have heard of it elsewhere, you should give credit to the person who brought it to your attention.

That seems like a rule that would be more workable. Say that there's this great newspaper article from 1789 discussing judicial review, and it comes from an obscure Pennsylvania newspaper that no one had ever heard of until Prof. Jones uncovered it. In that case, it seems fair to credit Prof. Jones with the discovery, so that you don't inaccurately imply that you independently found that article in your own perusal of Pennsylvania newspapers from the 1700s.

Even there, though, it doesn't make sense to throw around "plagiarism" charges willy-nilly when the source is reasonably discoverable. That is, there's no reason that you should be forced to cite the first article/book that happened to lead you to a source that you WOULD eventually have discovered on your own or through any number of other resources.

3. You should cite the secondary source when you haven't actually checked out the original source for yourself.

This is perhaps the most defensible rule. Scholars should always check out the original sources for themselves whenever possible. (An exception would be where a historian relies on original documents, such that it would be immensely impractical and unnecessary for you to recreate the research).

But frankly, I suspect that a lot of scholars don't actually check the original source. I came across this phenomenon once in a law review article that I edited while in school. The author had inaccurately described what happened in an old Supreme Court case, in the midst of a passage that also cited Laurence Tribe's treatise a few times. When checking all of the citations, I corrected the inaccuracy after reading the original Supreme Court decision, and then was surprised to see the same inaccuracy in a footnote in Laurence Tribe's treatise. Clearly, that author had merely copied Tribe's description of the case. (Perhaps Tribe, like some map companies, introduces minor inaccuracies into his treatise in order to sniff out such instances of copying.)

That's the only sort of "cite copying" that I would label as plagiarism: Copying what one author says about an original source without even bothering to look up that original source for yourself. In such an instance, you're representing someone else's research as if it were your own.

UPDATE: Michelle Dulak Thomson writes with the following comment:
I agree with you, mostly. You surely don't have to present the whole chain of discovery by which you came in contact with every primary source. On the other hand, if a primary source is very rarely cited and difficult to access, it's common courtesy either to mention the secondary source that led you to it, or else to make clear that you found it independently of said secondary source. (If you're working that far into the archives, you generally know who's cited what, and it's best to make clear that you aren't poaching other people's work if you really aren't.)

And these steps insulate you from the charge that you never looked at the primary source at all -- which, as you say, is serious bad behavior, but I think very common.

In short: Only cite sources you've seen, and credit other scholars that may have led you to the more obscure ones, or else cite their independent work while making clear that you haven't relied on it for your own. I think those two rules keep you free of plagiarism.


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