Reflections on Plagiarism

To my mind there are several forms of plagiarism.  One form is what I call “cheap” plagiarism … that is, the reproduction or only slightly-altered paraphrase of someone else’s words that are then presented as your own original prose.  Once upon a time that sort of plagiarism almost always had to be deliberate, and to my mind it had to go beyond a simple turn of phrase unless said turn of phrase was closely identified with someone else and you were taking explicit credit for it yourself.  In short, ending a chapter on television news coverage in the 1960s with “And that’s the way it was back in the 1960s” is a play on Walter Cronkite’s closing tag line, and most people will get that you are taking literary license with it.  But when I see sentence after sentence that looks like someone else’s work (and I have), well, that’s what it is.  You especially recognize it when you are the writer being plagiarized, as I have been.

That sort of plagiarism has become easier to commit, whether intentionally or not, and it is also easier to spot … and that’s all due to the computer.  Once upon a time you took notes on notecards and pieces of paper, then assembled that into a text, and typed the text.  If you were going to lift material, you had to be either sloppy (quoting on the notecard without using quote marks) or deliberate.  Now people cut and paste all sorts of things onto a word-processed document, and for many of us the whole process of composition has changed.  I don’t use research assistants, and I approach citation in a particular way, so I am completely responsible for what appears under my name.  Unless I’m directly quoting material, I don’t cut and paste onto the manuscript text, and if I do quote, I immediately insert the citation.  Even then, if you insert or add other material a certain way, you have to make sure that you’ve retained the correct order of citations.  When these procedures aren’t followed, you may inadvertently do something you never would have done in the old days.  For those people who use freelancers or research assistants, the possibility of inadvertent mischief increases.

But the chances of detection have also increased.  Simple search strings of phrases reveal other sources.  For example, I’m aware of a person who claimed that he was working on something he liked to call “The South as Other,” and that this was his original work.  A quick search of search engines suggested that this was not so, and that in fact he had lifted the phrase from someone he claimed to have contacted in search of information.  Prior to computers, the internet, and search engines, that would have been an unlikely discovery.  Now students have to submit work as electronic files to plagiarism software that essentially acts as one gigantic search engine, and it’s rather easy to find out where prose has been appropriated.

In short, instances of plagiarism (and “intent” needs to be set aside … that’s where the moral indictment takes place) in this format can be more frequent due to a number of factors, and it’s far easier to detect.

Yes, that sort of plagiarism bothers me.  I wish it didn’t happen.  But in most cases it’s fairly inconsequential intellectually.  It’s sloppy, it’s stupid, and sometimes it is worse.  But to me it’s the willingness of people to lift intellectual frameworks that is more bothersome, even as it is more difficult to give due credit or at times to recognize your dependence on others.  Most of us come to our insights after a great deal of reading.  There are flashes of original insight or of seeing things far more clearly than before.  But the creative act also depends on reading, listening, absorbing, and weighing, and sometimes that process isn’t delineated as clearly as it might be.  Sometimes our insights are in fact original with us, but not original to all.  For example, when I was preparing The Reconstruction Presidents, I first composed the chapters on Lincoln and Hayes.  That was in the early 1990s.  In 1994 Phil Paludan’s masterful The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln appeared, and I was chagrined to find that he had reached many of the same conclusions.  I didn’t change my argument, but now the footnotes had to reflect that others were making that same argument, and if my intellectual act was original with me to me, others would no longer see it that way.  I note that a lot of people are so fond of my thinking on Grant that they employ it a lot, and sometimes without remembering where they came across it in the first place.

Much historical research involves learning from others, using those insights, and applying them.  I think we need to be more conscious of that.  When one says something truly original (as in my application of Clausewitzian concepts to Grant’s post-Appomattox military career concerning Reconstruction policy), well, that’s rare.  More frequently, it’s a combination of reflection, alteration, change in perspective, and insight.  I think we need to acknowledge that more often.

Calhoun on Slavery, the States, and Federalism

On December 27, 1837, Senator John C. Calhoun introduced the following resolutions:

1. Resolved, That in the adoption of the Federal Constitution, the States adopting the same, acted severally, as free, independent and sovereign States; and that each, for itself, by its own voluntary act, entered into the Union with the view to its increased security against all dangers, domestic, as well as foreign,—and the more perfect and secure enjoyment of its advantages, natural, political and social.

2. Resolved, That, in delegating a portion of their powers to be exercised by the Federal Government, the States retained, severally, the exclusive and sole right over their own domestic institutions and police, —and are alone responsible for them; and that any intermeddling of any one or more States, or a combination of their citizens, with the domestic institutions and police of the others, on any ground, or under any pretext whatever, political, moral or religious,—with a view to their alteration or subversion, is an assumption of superiority, not warranted by the constitution ;—insulting to the States interfered with,—tending to endanger their domestic peace and tranquillity ; subversive of the objects for which the constitution was formed; and, by necessary consequence, tending to weaken and destroy the Union itself.

3. Resolved, That this Government was instituted and adopted by the several States of this Union as a common agent, in order to carry into effect the powers which they had delegated by the constitution for their mutual security and prosperity; and that, in fulfilment of their high and sacred trust, this Government is bound so to exercise its powers, as to give, as far as may be practicable, increased stability and security to the domestic institutions of the States that compose the Union; and that it is the solemn duty of the Government to resist all attempts by one portion of the Union to use it as an instrument to attack the domestic institutions of another, or to weaken or destroy such institutions, instead of strengthening and upholding them, as it is in duty bound to do.

4. Resolved, That domestic slavery, as it exists in the Southern and Western States of this Union, composes an important part of their domestic institutions, inherited from their ancestors, and existing at the adoption of the constitution, by which it is recognized as constituting an essential element in the distribution of its powers among the States ; and that no change of opinion or feeling, on the part of the other States of the Union in relation to it, can justify them or their citizens in open and systematic attacks thereon, with a view to its overthrow ; and that all such attacks are in manifest violation of the mutual and solemn pledge to protect and defend each other, given by the States respectively, on entering into the constitutional compact which formed the Union,—and, as such, is a manifest breach of faith, Ad a violation of the most solemn obligations, moral and religious.

5. Resolved, That the intermeddling of any State or States, or their citizens, to abolish slavery in this District, or in any of the territories, on the ground, or under the pretext, that it is immoral or sinful—or the passage of any act or measure of Congress with that view, would be a direct and dangerous attack on the institutions of all the slaveholding States.

6. Resolved, That the Union of these States rests on an equality of rights and advantages among its members; and that, whatever destroys that equality, tends to destroy the Union itself; and that it is the solemn duty of all, and more especially of this body, which represents the States in their corporate capacity, to resist all attempts to discriminate between the States in extending the benefits of the Government to the several portions of the Union ; and to refuse to extend to the Southern and Western States any advantage which would tend to strengthen, or render them more secure;—or to increase their limits or population, by the annexation of new territory or States, on the assumption, or under the pretext that the institution of slavery, as it exists among them, is immoral or sinful, or otherwise obnoxious, would be contrary to that equality of rights and advantages which the constitution was intended to secure alike to all the members of the Union; and would, in effect, disfranchise the slaveholding States, by withholding from them the advantages, while it subjected them to the burdens of the Government.

Care to draw the links between the defense of slavery and federalism?