Let no one else's work evade your eyes. Remember why the good Lord made your eyes.
So don't shade your eyes.
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!
NOT BAD, HUH? I wrote that little ditty myself.
Well, in all honesty, I should perhaps acknowledge that my mini-masterpiece is somewhat derivative of a similar song penned by a certain Tom Lehrer '47.1 I may have inadvertently borrowed a few of Mr. Lehrer's ideas in assembling this particular work. All right, maybe more than a few.
But the exclamation points are mine, dammit, all mine.2
WE ALL LEARNED the gospel on plagiarism in junior high. When quoting others directly, footnote. When paraphrasing others, footnote. When drawing upon others' ideas, footnote. When in doubt, footnote. In fact, foot-note everything. And footnote correctly. If you don't, you'll be in deep, deep trouble. 3
In its purest, slimiest form (see above), plagiarism is basically a bad thing. This kind of plagiarism entails dishonesty, thievery and stupidity--all things of which I am generally not fond. I copied an "original" limerick about a camel straight out of a children's poetry book in Mrs. Rubin's third grade class, and I'm still sorry about it. (Especially since Mrs. Rubin owned the same children's poetry book.) Professor Richard Marius, the director of Harvard's expository writing program, once wrote a story about a public hanging--then found the same exact story underneath someone else's byline 15 years later. (The plagiarist died soon afterwards. Coincidence? Perhaps.)
But to be perfectly honest, I can't get too worked up about less heinous cases of plagiarism. Words are pliable things, and I can't get too upset just because two people happen to ply them in similar ways. And to be honest, footnotes bug me. Even if you know there's nothing interesting to read in a footnote, you still have to read it.4 When Dr. Sherwood Frazier was forced out of his Medical School post for plagiarism, I must admit I felt sorry for the guy. Did Martin Luther King Jr. really plagiarize his dissertation? Hey, accidents will happen. I'm still an adoring fan.
A few years ago, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden ripped off part of a speech from a British politician, Neil Kinnock. Then he had the audacity to tell the media that the hullaballoo over his plagiarism was "much ado about nothing."5
But Biden had a point. What exactly did he do wrong? Withhold the truth? Come on, that's part of a politician's job description. Use words that weren't his own? Well, behind every pol lies a speechwriter. And I never heard President Reagan begin a speech, "As Peggy Noonan has written..."
On an evil scale of 1 to 100, with the Guyana massacre rating a 96, the BCCI scandal scoring an 82 and the Peewee Herman affair getting a two, I'd give Bidengate a 12.
On the stupidity scale, of course, the incident rates at least a 75. Biden's boo-boo was getting caught.
JOURNALISTS and their editors seem to get extremely indignant about plagiarism. A Boston University dean plagiarized his commencement speech? We'll splash it all over the front pages all summer long. A New York Times writer plagiarized an article about the plagiarized commencement speech? Run with that baby.
But what is journalism anyway? Original insight? No, it's institutionalized plagiarism.6 Reporters pass off others' observations as their own in almost every story they write. Sometimes these observations are preceded by a nod-to-protocol "some say." Sometimes they aren't. Does it really make that much of a difference to the reader?
No, you say, but it does to the plagiaree. In all but the most blatant cases, though, plagiarism is a victimless crime. Sure, Marius was upset that his entire story was heisted. ("It made me so mad, I could hardly bear it," he recalls.)
But does Dillon Professor of International Affairs Joseph Nye go ballistic when students parrot his ideas about "hard and soft power," "the realist paradigm" or "the myth of decline" in their papers? I doubt it. I'll bet he's glad they were paying attention. Does Voltaire spin in his grave every time a Crimson editorial follows his "I do not agree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it" reasoning? I don't think Voltaire reads The Crimson. I'd bet even the poet who penned the camel ode would be willing to overlook my youthful indiscretion by now.
Writers certainly have a certain prerogative to entire articles, stories and books they have written, just as inventors can patent their inventions. But what about phrases and "ideas"? Do I really have to cite George Santayana every time I point out that history can teach us lessons? Every time I point out that history tends to repeat itself? Or just every time I point out that "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it?"7
I wouldn't say that there is nothing new under the sun.8 But millions of thoughts have already been published, and many of those thoughts were very intelligent thoughts. That's why we do so much reading at Harvard.
The marketplace of ideas is not the South Street Seaport, a sprawling, nearly infinite metropolis-within-a-metropolis. It's more like Store 24--small, but open at all times for anyone to raid. Sure, there are occasional new items, but you're usually better off with the old selections. If they weren't good, they wouldn't still be on the shelves. Sports-writers, for instance, eat the same cliches every day, and nobody seems to mind.
Now that I've exhausted the ideas/food metaphor, let's talk music. MC Hammer admitted that the "Dowmp, Da-Da-Dowmp, Da-Dowmp, Da-Dowmp" riff in "U Can't Touch This" was lifted from Rick James's "Super-freak," and gave credit where credit was due. But I could swear I've heard the first four notes of the riff in Falco's "Der Kommisar" and Paula Abdul's "Cold-Hearted Snake," too. Who's plagiarizing whom? How many possible notes and rhythms are there? Isn't copycatting inevitable?
These dilemmas are not worth agonizing over. Shut up and dance.
UNTIL LAST YEAR, all first-year students were required to attend a two-hour Sanders Theater oration on plagiarism delivered by a certain Professor Richard Marius. He gleefully explained the dos and don'ts, the expellable and the suspendable, the dishonest and the stupid. For all the intricacies about uncited paraphrases and mislabelled footnotes, the message was seventh grade redux: plagiarism will get you in deep, deep trouble. That was our introduction to Harvard.
Marius no longer delivers the inaugural plagiarism address. (He thinks he was ousted from the program because former Dean of Freshmen Henry C. Moses thought his lots-o-laughs approach to plagiarism was "undignified.") In fact, the seminar is no longer limited to plagiarism. It now covers the "serious disciplinary abuses" of plagiarism and date rape, which, if you ask me, is somewhat akin to a seminar on jaywalking and genocide.
This year, the program is set for September 16, starring acting Dean of Freshmen Virginia L. Mackay-Smith '78 and Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57. You'll hear the obvious and not-so-obvious rules about plagiarism. Then, at some point during your years at Harvard, you will break them, inadvertently or otherwise. And if you're unlucky, as about 10 undergraduates were last year, you'll get busted. As Jewett says, Harvard has extremely strict standards, much stricter than most schools. And you'll find that some TF's are real nitpickers.
I once got accused of plagiarism. Fortunately, I hadn't done anything wrong that time. But I can still hear my TF's Southern drawl:
"Are those your words?"
"Are those your words?"
"Are those your words?" Scary.
AT THE HEIGHT of the Vietnam War, Marius listened to Lyndon Johnson recite a paragraph of a Winston Churchill speech almost word-for-word. Marius's reaction: "I thought, 'That son-of-a-bitch! Not only is he a murderer, but he's a plagiarist!"
Marius was kidding, of course. But you see what I'm driving at. America, a nation that tolerates Don King, Oliver North and the people responsible for the S&L crisis, goes berserk over plagiarism. Embezzlement damages careers; plagiarism destroys them.
It just doesn't seem right. Let he who is without sins cast the first stone.
I wrote that little proverb myself. Not bad, huh?
Michael R. Grunwald '92 is the editorial chair of The Crimson. He would like to emphasize that any similarities between this essay and one that appeared in Reader's Digest a few weeks ago are purely coincidental.