What’s Wrong with Plagiarizing?

Watch out if you object to plagiarism!

Fareed Zakaria, CNN commentator, Yale trustee, Harvard Ph.D., Washington Post columnist, and best-selling author has now weighed in on his plagiarism. I find three things notable about his explanation/excuse-making and the reactions it has generated—especially in light of my experience reporting plagiarism to the Harvard Medical School some years ago against the head of Harvard University’s Division on Addiction, Howard Shaffer.

1. He did nothing wrong. Although people, including journalists, refer to Zakaria’s initial apology as an acknowledgement that he plagiarized, it was nothing of the sort. As I pointed out, Zakaria never admitted to plagiarizing, but simply asserted on the pages of Time that observers were “right” to notice the “close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay.” What the hell was he admitting to, I asked?

I also correctly predicted his defense, that of most plagiarizers, that “they inadvertently lift the passages and store them as notes, then just as inadvertently plunk them back down in their own article, dissertation, or book.” As reported in the Huffington Post: “Zakaria strongly denied that any assistant or intern wrote his work, and said that his mistake came from mixing up different notes from different sources.”

This has been, from time immemorial, plagiarizers’ defense. The Atlantic’s Wire noted this going back a decade and more:

As Slate’s David Plotz pointed out in 2002 (in reference to the Stephen Ambrose scandal):

No matter what they steal, they fall back on the same excuses, as Thomas Mallon shows in his wonderful plagiarism book Stolen Words. Before the computer age, they blamed their confusing “notebooks,” where they allegedly mixed up their own notes with passages recorded elsewhere. These days, plagiarists claim they mistake electronic files of notes with their own writing.

Zakaria can especially point out that he was using the source he stole from as a source for other materials, which somehow makes it less stealing. As one commenter to my Huffington Post blog put it: “The poor guy was merely recounting FACTS. YES they were lifted. YES he probably just read Lepore’s article and started paraphrasing. But it’s not like he completely stole her argument.” See, just because someone else has read and thought about a topic or idea, and you short-circuit that process by lifting their citations and the writer’s descriptions of them in making your argument, that’s not plagiarism!

In my case with Dr. Shaffer, the main liftings were of references and their interpretation in terms of a larger argument that Shaffer and I were both making. What’s the harm in that? Shaffer might have read them and had the same reactions and made the same arguments—he just borrowed mine without attributing me. Then Shaffer raised the “notes” argument—he just made them and accidentally credited them as his own writing. After noting the lifted passages (which even Shaffer acknowledged), the HMS ethics committee bought Shaffer’s argument hook, line, and sinker.

As I said to the committee evaluating the case, and as I noted about Zakaria, how does that work? You mean the person reread the notes he copied and thought that he wrote that, read those references, and had those thoughts about them himself? “My, I really wrote something pretty clever there, perhaps while I was sleeping.” I just don’t understand that process.

2. Attack the complainant. A typical comment at my HuffPo blog based on my post about Zakaria’s plagiarism: “Fareed Zakaria has a dedicated anti-fan club that constantly posts extremely negative comments about his views and attacks him as a person.” This was Zakaria’s own main point of attack: “Zakaria was also forced to address accusations of quote-lifting in a recent book, causing him to lash out at critics who he said were trying to use the fracas to wound him further.”

I’m not guilty! I’ve never criticized Zakaria before! I always thought he was insightful and well-informed!

Psheew. Let me calm down. I got a little defensive there. But you see how this works. In my case, when I complained to Dr. Shaffer, he told me that he had ceased referring to my work, since I was such a complainer! He did nothing wrong—it was my problem! This was what caused me to file my complaint with Harvard Medical School. While my complaint was pending, Shaffer’s attorney contacted and threatened me. Harvard noted Shaffer’s effort at intimidating me and that this was a violation of their procedures. Shaffer desisted—at least he never sued me—but not before I was forced to hire an attorney. The committee said that Shaffer might have been sanctioned for his actions in interfering with its process, but he wasn’t.

3. What’s the big deal? It now seems as though Zakaria will skate. At least his media platforms have begun excusing his actions and welcoming him back. Zakaria did resign from his trustee’s position at Yale, however. Yale might have faced larger problems in tolerating Zakaria’s malfeasance, since the University constantly confronts incidents exactly like it—down to the same excuses and rationalizations—perpetrated by students.

Anyhow, Shaffer is still director of Harvard’s Division on Addiction and never suffered any consequences of which I am aware. (You don’t think he’s going to sue me now, do you?*)

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* I wrote Howard:

Howard, What did you think of the Zakaria scandal?

It reminded me a lot of what you did, didn’t it you? Please let me know if I got any facts wrong so that I can correct them. (Do you still use the same attorney? Shall I expect to hear from him?)

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