Scott McLemee: On Stolen Words

... the topic of plagiarism itself keeps returning. One professor after another gets caught in the act. The journalists and popular writers are just as prolific with other people’s words. And as for the topic of student plagiarism, forget it — who has time to keep up?

It was not that surprising, last fall, to come across the call for papers for a new scholarly journal called Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. I made a mental note to check its Web site again — and see that it began publishing this month.

One study is already available at the site: an analysis of how the federal Office of Research Integrity handled 19 cases of plagiarism involving research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service. Another paper, scheduled for publication shortly, will review media coverage of the Google Library Project. Several other articles are now working their way through peer review, according to the journal’s founder, John P. Lesko, an assistant professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, and will be published throughout the year in open-source form. There will also be an annual print edition of Plagiary. The entire project has the support of the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan.

In a telephone interview, Lesko told me that research into plagiarism is central to his own scholarship. His dissertation, titled “The Dynamics of Derivative Writing,” was accepted by the University of Edinburgh in 2000 — extracts from which appear at his Web site Famous Plagiarists, which he says now gets between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors per month.

While the journal Plagiary has a link to Famous Plagiarists, and vice versa, Lesko insists that they are separate entities — the former scholarly and professional, the latter his personal project. And that distinction is a good thing, too. Famous Plagiarists tends to hit a note of stridency such that, when Lesko quotes Camille Paglia denouncing the poststructuralists as “cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents’ generations in Nazi France,” she seems almost calm and even-tempered by contrast.

“It seems that both Foucault and Barthes’ contempt for the Author was expressed in some rather plagiaristic utterances,” he writes, “a parroting of the Nietschean ‘God is dead’ assertion.” That might strike some people as confusing allusion with theft. But Lesko is vehement about how the theorists have served as enablers for the plagiarists, as well as the receivers of hot cargo.

“After all,” he writes, “a plagiarist — so often with the help of collaborators and sympathizers — steals the very livelihood of a text’s real author, thus relegating that author to obscurity for as long as the plagiarist’s name usurps a text, rather than the author being recognized as the text’s originator. Plagiarism of an author condemns that author to death as a text’s rightfully acknowledged creator...” (The claim that Barthes and Foucault were involved in diminishing the reputation of Nietzsche has not, I believe, ever been made before.)

To a degree, his frustration is understandable. In some quarters, it is common to recite – as though it were an established truth, rather than an extrapolation from one of Foucault’s essays – the idea that plagiarism is a “historically constructed” category of fairly recent vintage: something that came into being around the 18th century, when a capitalistically organized publishing industry found it necessary to foster the concept of literary property.

A very interesting argument to be sure — though not one that holds up under much scrutiny.

The term “plagiarism” in its current sense is about two thousand years old. It was coined by the Roman poet Martial, who complained that a rival was biting his dope rhymes. (I translate freely.) Until he applied the word in that context, plagiarius had meant someone who kidnapped slaves. Clearly some notion of literary property was already implicit in Martial’s figure of speech, which dates to the first century A.D....

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