Friday, November 11, 2011

Pre-blogging Jack Shafer

I've got a couple of posts coming up on related subjects so I thought I'd get this out of the way in advance.

Here's Jack Shafer explaining how his intense antipathy toward plagiarism is all about the readers (via Salmon):
The plagiarist defrauds readers by leading them to believe that he has come by the facts of his story first-hand–that he vouches for the accuracy of the facts and interpretations under his byline. But this is not the case. Generally, the plagiarist doesn’t know whether the copy he’s lifted has gotten the story right because he hasn’t really investigated the topic. (If he had, he could write the story himself.) In such cases he must attribute the material he borrows so that at the very least the reader can hold somebody accountable for the facts in a story.
Putting aside the fact that Shafer has never gotten that worked up about colleagues' inaccuracy (you'll notice he didn't jump on this story about his friend Gregg Easterbrook), there's an interesting game here of rhetorical Three-card Monte. The cards in this game are the three types of plagiarism: theft of ideas and interpretations; theft of facts and data; and theft of wording.

In the world of research, the first two are considered the most serious. Stealing the hypothesis of another paper or presenting someone else's data as your own is about the worst thing you can do. Lifting a passage of someone else's writing is frowned upon but prose style does not drive impact factors.

For journalists, the situation is exactly reversed. Reusing another writer's phrases is clearly considered the worst kind of plagiarism, perhaps the worst journalistic crime period. Stealing facts (such as using other people's reporting to cover an event) is seldom even mentioned except in the most flagrant of cases. As for appropriating ideas, the practice is so common as to almost be standard. Even those most modern of journalistic concepts, memes, are almost always based largely on the plagiarism of hypotheses and arguments.

Now, here's the part where the cards really start to move. Shafer's criticism only applies to the first two types of plagiarism, the two types he doesn't object to. (aren't the first two nested in the third? Sometimes, but Shafer apparently doesn't have a problem with borrowing and paraphrasing, it must be the not-paraphrasing part that bothers him). If Shafer really wants to convince us that borrowing without paraphrasing is more than journalist-on-journalist crime, he'll have to do better than that.

No comments:

Post a Comment