Monday, May 25, 2009

Maureen Dowd

As I'm writing this, the story about Maureen Dowd's plagiarism of Josh Marshall is that she lifted the 43-word paragraph from a friend's email, who lifted it from Marshall's blog.

While he doesn't condone the behaviour, Jack Shafer at Slate takes the opportunity to praise Dowd's response to the charges. Most importantly, he says, she doesn't claim that what she has done is not plagiarism (as many who are caught do) and is "taking her lumps".

Unfortunately, Clark Hoyt, the public editor at the NYTimes has gone ahead and denied it for her: "I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right." This is odd because the only thing that could be wrong with presenting someone else's words (whether another writer's or a friend's) as your own is that it is plagiarism. The NYTpicker rightly jumps on Hoyt for it here) and rightly demands an answer to a further question, raised by Dowd's account. Has the NYTimes asked Dowd for a copy of the email of correspondence during which the mistake was made?

At first I agreed with Shafer, that Dowd was doing the right thing after having done the wrong thing. I.e., I believed that she was owning up. But she actually changed her story, which went from plagiarize her friend "in conversation" to plagiarizing his/her email. Either way, she was, I would argue, trying to avoid taking the hit (and her lumps) directly.

I have some questions. Did she ask permission? If so, why did her friend not protect her friend's reputation by owning up to the source?

There is no excuse for using someone else's words in your writing without proper attribution. It may have been a mistake, an intentional act of theft, or it may have been an intential act based on utter ignorance of the academic and journalistic standards. I think the Dowd example shows that you should never try to explain your plagiarism in a way that tries to take the punch out of the charge by obscuring the trail. (E.g., "I didn't plagiarize Marshall. I plagiarized a friend who plagiarized Marshall."*)

One thing I've noticed about plagiarism throughout the past few years is that doing it often inspires your peers to take the gloves off in their criticism of you. Note Dan Kennedy's (though his gloves were actually already off) and Hadley Freeman's pieces in the Guardian. The latter is especially telling. A solid case of plagiarism, even one that everyone agrees is minor, allows a fashion writer to call a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist "dumbo". It really does allow that.

Update: I think it's significant that Time connects the charge to "grumblings" about Dowd's lack of originality (a charge also makes by Dan Kennedy) in terms of her tendency to quote at length.

Update 2: Jon Friedman makes a related observation that resonates with my own experience with plagiarism. "An accusation of plagiarism is merely a symptom of Dowd's recent penchant for relying on clever, witty and pithy observations. What's missing is the substance to back them up. Her approach smacks of laziness."

Update 3: I like Dan Kennedy's stick-to-it-ness.

Update 4: The always informative Language Log analysis.

Changed 01.05.14: For some reason I had originally written "Dowd" instead of "Marshall" in this sentence.

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