Print

 

In her "Plagiarists Do No Good" article in this issue of MEDIA ETHICS, Peggy J. Bowers does an outstanding job of reminding everyone that plagiarism is contemptible, unethical, immoral, and theft of one's humanity, financial remuneration, and prestige. "The plagiarist pretends," she wrote, "to be what he is not; someone he is not." She is entirely correct.

 

Not only that, but every plagiarist is a liar, proffering statements that belong to another, and not to be trusted.

 

Dr. Bowers's points are all well taken, and I agree with every one wholeheartedly. Read her piece; you'll see.

 

While she is reminding everyone of the evils of plagiarism, however, she is taking me to task for my piece, "Some Musings on Plagiarism" (MEDIA ETHICS, 17:1:9, 20-21, Fall 2005), on famous plagiarists. That is fine; she has that right. This is not a defense of what I wrote, because throughout my piece, I denounced and cautioned against plagiarism.

 

In my piece, I documented the truth about famous people who plagiarized. President Lincoln, President F.D. Roosevelt, President Kennedy, and Prime Minister Churchill did plagiarize.

 

And, today, we laud them for the fine words they spoke, even teach our children to memorize the plagiarized statements: "of the people, by the people, for the people," "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," "ask not what your country can do for you," "blood, sweat, and tears."

 

In fact, when we cite those phrases, we attribute them not to their originators, not to the people whose ideas they were initially, but to the four notables. None of that, however, validates what those notables did. I only pointed out who they were and what they did and the fact that they are lauded for it.

 

My being taken to task reminds me of the French soldier during the Great War who disobeyed orders and saved the day. He was given the Croix de Guerre for heroism and shot for disobedience of orders in wartime.

I'm sorry, but I just cannot imagine Lincoln ending his majestic "Gettysburg Address" by saying: "...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government, as the Reverend Theodore Parker said, 'of the people, by the people, for the people,' shall not perish from the earth."

 

Or Roosevelt, cautioning the restive populace in the throes of the Great Depression: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief, as my speechwriter picked up from an advertisement in a department store window, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

 

Or Kennedy challenging the nation: "Let me paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes's 1884 Memorial Address in which he said, 'It is now the moment when by common consent we pause...to recall what our country had done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.'"

 

Or Churchill's stirring 1940 warning to the British people about the expected onslaught of the Nazi war machine: "I have nothing to offer, as the poets John Donne and Robert Browning and Lord Byron wrote, but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

 

I do not condone, but I would not change a word of what any of those four leaders actually said. Those are historic speeches that served their purpose in time of sore need, regardless of plagiarized words and ideas.

 

If my bringing all that to the fore causes disquiet among academicians, so be it.

 

As for my reference to Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 ("there is no new thing under the sun") and who wrote it and when, all I knew was what I read. Having read Bowers' piece, however, I know a lot more. Solomon did not write it; it was written hundreds of years after he died; and it has nothing to do with things, but everything to do with people. But I used it because the words fit the tenor of my piece.

 

I suppose I could have written, "The more it changes, the more it stays the same." But even that idea has ancient roots. In 161 B.C., Terence, possibly borrowing that thought himself, complained in Enunchus: Prologue, "Nothing is said nowadays that has not been said before." In the fourth century, the grammarian Donatus complained, "Confound those who have said our good things before us."

 

I said: "The authority for the information is the original author; the plagiarist cannot be the authority." Bowers is correct when she says that it isn't the validity of the information that is at stake but the authenticity of the person disseminating it.

 

Webster's New World Dictionary says that authenticity "implies reliability and trustworthiness, stressing that the thing considered is in agreement with fact or actuality." I'll have to blame my confusion of these two concepts upon my old newsman training to use information only from people of authority, and to attribute it properly. In general, in news writing, what is not attributed is either observable fact or must be considered to belong to the news writer.

 

And, to my surprise, in 1991, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology redefined plagiarism to include "...the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit..." I should have known that, even though I'm not sold on the idea. It seems to me that if you're going to sit on your brilliant idea and do nothing about it, don't fuss if someone more clever than you takes it, perhaps says "thank you very much," and runs to the bank.

 

Miguel Roig [http:facpub.stjohns.edu~roigmplagiarismPlagiarism.html] called the plagiarizing of ideas "a moral obligation to credit the source." Well, if that's all it takes, say "thank you" and keep the revenue. Let the originator of the idea walk around dumb.

 

After all, no one of late is crediting Leonardo da Vinci with the idea for the helicopter and the bicycle. Nor are manufacturers, who make millions from the development of those ideas, giving da Vinci's heirs any revenue from their sale.

 

Now, I'll probably catch the dickens for that position.

 

Everything we have began with someone's idea. Reporters who attend news conferences frequently pick up ideas for stories from other reporters who ask for information on their ideas.

 

But I do not argue. Bowers makes fine points, telling points. Read again her piece and be edified, in all its meanings.

 

So, now I will take my tongue out of my cheek and say most sincerely, please do not plagiarize. If you must use someone else's work, ask permission, give credit, and give attribution to the source. This is the only ethical course.

 

* Douglas Perret Starr is a former Associated Press newsman, currently Prof. of Agricultural Journalism in Texas A&M Univ. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His earlier article on plagiarism was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005.

 

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp. 9,20.