Plagiarism: You Know It When You See It (Really?)


Mr. St. Onge is professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University. He is the author of The Melancholy Anatomy of Plagiarism (University Press of America, 1988).

"Parallel-hunters do not, as a rule, set out to be truthful and impartial. They are hell-bent on proving a point. ... Parallel-hunting is predicated on the use of lowest-common denominators. Virtually all literature, even the most original, can be reduced to such terms, and thereby shown to be unoriginal. So viewed, Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper plagiarizes Dickens' David Copperfield. Both deal with England, both describe the slums of London, both see their hero exalted beyond his original station. To regard any two books in this light, however, is to ignore every factor that differentiates one man's thoughts, reactions and literary expression from another."

    --Alexander Lindey, Plagiarism and Originality (l952)

When the first sentence was written a few millennia ago someone copied it and put exposition on the plagiarism warpath. It is a universal physical law that everything is derived from earlier antecedents, more complex in its unfolding when symbols and syntax are involved because the game of symbolic processing is exclusively human and without it we would be homo agnosia not sapiens. Apparently the price to be paid is periodic plagiarism ad nauseum, the accusers sickened and the accused eviscerated and abandoned.

This time the targets are Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin and when they are driven from the intellectual market place other targets are sure to follow. Why, we must ask!

The obvious response is our obligation to protect our original scholarship from the envious siphoning of lesser scribes. However vital that protection is deemed, neither the academy nor the law has managed to establish a syntactical minimum offense. A classic instance on the record is that of an otherwise sane professor of criminology who publicly claimed his surprising gift for identifying one word plagiarism! It is the academy that is responsible for this sad state of affairs.

This essay should proceed no further without the writer offering some assurance of his objectivity. Neither author has been met and they are, I am certain, completely unaware of my existence, prior to the revelations of the alleged plagiarism. At age 8l I felt familiar enough with WW II and the Kennedy Dynasty to go directly to the plagiarism issue. But we must note that both authors are writing where multitudes have scrolled at prodigious length. To expect pristine originality in history's retellings is to expect the impossible.

Regrettably. the academy has failed to establish formal quantitative indices of derivation, i.e., the ratio of derivativeness to original exposition. Obviously, original paragraphs should be protected and sentences also when they are discursive and propositional in nature. Ah, but what of phrases? Or even phrases in sequence? Should these also merit appropriate degrees of attribution? Lacking a properly sampled referendum from writers, authors and readers, why has our literate aggregation failed to legislate a fair and equitable common domain? Unless we legislate all phrases to be in the common domain, as well as all short sentences, the grounds for complaints will become infinite and as they proliferate we will no longer read for content but only for attributional compliance.

So here we are again, being worried by newly accused Ambrose and Goodwin. What were their alleged offenses? Replicating phrases from earlier models describing people, basic ideas, values, of or on the subject. etc. And per Cicero, all history must be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (Sound familiar? I trust that trinary is in the common domain.) In history there is no poetic license. Despite the constraints, they were prodigious expositors. Worse, from the world of envy, were the due rewards of great popularity, royalty in status and. royalties fiscal, reducing all of us underachievers to pitiful objects. Goodwin even managed to be charming and lovable! Some souls are without mercy.

And how was all of this treated in our local press? A senior writer assigned the reporting task. Did he inspect and analyze the alleged plagiarisms of either author? No, instead he calls chairs of the three local university History Departments for their impressions, as if these would be expert opinions on the subject. Of course, their opinions are as good as anyone else's. As good as is not good enough.

Predictably, those called reached conclusions about plagiarism without any reference to the evidence. It is, in their words,"a scandal" and" a"stain on their reputations," with guilt presumed. On this intellectually shallow basis the commentators go bravely ahead. The problem is, they solemnly assure the inquiring party, a" cleavage" between professional historians and"popular" historians. This paradox is never resolved. It is ad hoc reasoning at its worst.

But what a headline resulted:


Historians are awarded both advanced and honorary degrees. No external national professional agency certifies and credentials history's scholars, as many other professional societies do. The parent professional body, the American Historical Association, unless it has recently instituted a certification program, does not intrude into the technical competencies of historians, although it is concerned with ethics and historical validity. Its ventures into policing professional ethics, including plagiarism, have tended to be painful experiences, and it now looks for other agencies, the American Association of University Professors, for example, to assume responsibility for academic ethics. The AHA did claim jurisdiction for all of history under its Federal Charter but that presumption was rejected by expert legal opinion. So much for the hubris of history. The moral seems to be that if you write on matters historical, you are on your own.

Were Ambrose and/or Goodwin guilty as charged? Only if a rational scholar is willing to accept charges in the absence of proof. In the realm of plagiarism complaints we must distinguish between the substantial and the marginal as we do in copyright. Anything less than original complex sentences cannot command our intellectual respect. On these coherent grounds, and in this judicious court, the charges against Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin are dismissed."

Illustration by Curtiss Calleo

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Derek Catsam - 3/24/2002

IF you use my words and do not directly cite me, with quotation marks and full citation, it is plagiarism. And if you quote me dozens or even hundreds of times to write your article or book, even with proper citation, it is pretty shoddy. Let's not excuse these actions. We can forgive. No one says that Ambrose and Goodwin cannot redeem themselves, but they have done what they have done. No amount of apologia will change that.

Michael Ingrisano - 3/21/2002

History’s Retelling

St. Onge uses some rather odd language in defense of Ambrose and Goodwin. "At age 81, I felt familiar enough with World War II …to go directly to the plagiarism issue…But we must note that both authors are writing where multitudes have scrolled at prodigious length. To expect pristine originality in history’s retelling is to expect the impossible."

At age 81, I am also familiar with WWII having served for three years. But that does not excuse me from not expecting "pristine originality" in writing, not retelling, that history. On that score, Ambrose fails miserably, and we have the "multitudes that have scrolled at prodigious length" demanding that Ambrose tell that truth.

Philip Nobile - 3/19/2002

Prof. St. Onge's interesting whitewash of Ambrose and Goodwin misses an important point: both have already confessed to the crime he says they did not commit. Further, in Goodwin's case, it was difficult for readers to distinguish between marginal and subtantial copying in No Ordinary Time because she threatened to sue the author (me) who tried to open the discussion here on HNN and then HNN killed the discussion, which had been edited, released and was minutes from posting as unfair to Goodwin. So much for freedom of historical argument.
Philip Nobile

Pierre Troublion - 3/18/2002

Professor St. Onge proposes a new definition of plagiarism: the improperly attributed copying of "original complex sentences". This is much narrower than the definition of Webster: "to pass off the ideas or words of another as one's own or to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." Leaving aside the question of whether St. Onge or Webster is the better authority on the English language, the latter definition is quite obviously the fairer. It is a popular trend nowadays for lawyers to argue about the meaning of words, rather than to use the law to help solve problems, but there are better responses than to redefine English along legal lines.