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.