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January 06, 2002

WHY USING PARALLEL PASSAGES IN

WHY USING PARALLEL PASSAGES IN CLAIMING PLAGIARISM IS DANGEROUS: From Alexander Lindey, Plagiarism and Originality, pp. 60-61:

Whether the virtues of parallels outweigh the vices is open to debate. The fact remains that the vices are considerable.

1. Any method of comparison which lists and underscores similarities and suppresses or minimizes differences is necessarily misleading.

2. Parallels are too readily susceptible of manipulation. Superficial resemblances may be made to appear as of the essence.

3. Parallel-hunters do not, as a rule, set out to be truthful and impartial. They are hell-bent on proving a point.

4. Parallel-hunting is predicated on the use of lowest common denominators. Virtually all literature, even teh 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 throughts, reactions and literary expression from another's.

5. Parallel columns operate piecemeal. They wrench phrases and passages out of context. A product of the imagination is individible. It depends on totality of effect. To remove details from their setting is to falsify them.

6. Parallels fail to indicate the proportion which the purportedly borrowed material bears to the sum total of the source, or to the whole of the new work. Without such information a just appraisal is impossible.

7. The practitioners of the technique resort tooo often to sleight of hand. They employ language, not to record facts or to describe things accurately, but as props in a rhetorical hocus-pocus which, by describing different things in identical words, appears to make them magically alike.

8. A double-column analysis is a dissection. An autopsy will reveal a great deal about a cadaver, but very little about the spirit of the man who once inhabited it.

9. Most parallels rest on the assumption that if two successive things are similar, the second one was copied from the first. This assumption disregards all the other possible causes of similarity.

Applying these to the case at hand, many -- though not all -- don't apply. It seems very likely to me that the language in Ambrose's book came from Childers' But is that plagiarism?

Classically, plagiarism constitutes taking someone's work as a whole and passing it off as one's own, which pretty clearly didn't happen here -- at least, it's not what Barnes is alleging. At most, based on what Barnes says, what we have is sloppy work. It has become a fad to call the repetition of short passages "plagiarism," but that doesn't fit the classical definition -- and by using the word "copycat" Barnes clearly means to criticize more than Ambrose's efficiency in organizing his research materials, and Mickey Kaus is clearly ringing the plagiarism-alarm bell.

Journalists, of course, have a weird double-standard on plagiarism. They in fact lift people's ideas in their entirety without attribution all the time (a woman from the Atlantic Monthly once interviewed me for an entire hour -- then wrote the story putting all my quotes into the mouths of more famous people (who, to be fair, I'm sure she called and got to say those things again) and left me out of it entirely, which to my mind is plagiarism but which to a journalist would not be -- and they effectively reprint press releases on a steady basis. Yet Kaus is no doubt right when he says he's known journalists who got canned for far less than what Ambrose is accused of.

The rule for journalists seems to be: idea theft is fine; prose theft is fine if it comes from people who don't mind, as with a press release (even if the reader is fooled as to the source), but if you use even a short passage verbatim from another journalist -- perhaps because that is easily proved -- then you're a pariah. As a norm for journalists, this may make sense (though it seems awfully, er, convenient in a lot of ways) but (1) it's not clear it has a lot to do with ethics; and (2) there's no obvious reason why the somewhat self-serving rules that journalists apply to themselves should be applied in exactly the same fashion to other people.