Monday, April 17, 2017

Trying to get a handle on the plagiarism discussion

I believe I'm on the record as not having much taste for the topic. This is especially true in the case of Neil Gorsuch  (I'm still focused on the ability to combine Evangelical extremism with a stunningly unchristian deference to wealth and power), but it's a debate we seem to be stuck with and I've been meaning to take a little time to clean up my stand on things for a long while now. The current discussion is all too often muddled, illogical, hypocritical, and just plain silly. In order to have a productive conversation, there are some lines we need to lay out and some issues we need to address.

The disparity between severity and punishment:
As we have been over many times before, bad journalism exacts a disturbing cost. It can distort markets, undermine scientific and technological progress, and corrupt democracy. If you start to list the journalistic sins that have caused the greatest damage, plagiarism will almost never break the top five. Despite this, it is perhaps the one sin that is the most readily and heavily punished.

The twin crimes of plagiarism:
We generally say that plagiarism is wrong because it entails theft and misrepresentation. In one of the many contradictions of the debate, misrepresentation is, in most cases, only disapproved of if it comes with theft (theft without misrepresentation of authorship is piracy and is definitely frowned upon). Big name writers frequently have assistants do most of their actual work (or ghosts who do all of it). PR agents often send press puff pieces to friendly reporters who add nothing but their bylines. Co-authors often contribute nothing to academic papers. All of these practices are designed to mislead the reader, but compared to plagiarism, they get almost no criticism, at least partially because of …

The victimology of plagiarism:
It’s useful at this point to think in somewhat simplified terms of three major stakeholders, journalists, subjects and readers/viewers. If you look at the evolution of journalistic standards over the past few decades, you’ll notice a trend favoring the interests of the first and dismissing the interests of the third.  Laziness and inaccuracy are primarily crimes against the reader and therefore have little consequences (which explains the career of Alessandra Stanley). Plagiarism is mainly a crime against other journalists.

The comically narrow definition of plagiarism:
Outside of academia (where the rules are somewhat different), when you hear about someone getting in trouble for plagiarism, you can be almost certain that it is for a very specific kind.

Writing consist of any number of elements that, with one notable exception, you are allowed to steal, and even rewarded for doing so. Style, arguments, conclusions, imagery, language. As long as you hew  closely to the standard narrative and borrow from "the right people," your work will be celebrated with awards, promotions, and sweet gigs on TV news shows. The only kind of plagiarism that get you into trouble is copying the wording of some passage. As long as you sufficiently paraphrase the work you are recycling, you will be fine. If anything, your lack of orthogonality will be appreciated by the rest of the industry.

None of this is meant as a defense of plagiarism. It's sleazy and slothful, but the discussion of it and of journalistic ethics in general have become hopeless, and given the importance of good journalism, that's a huge problem.

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