Two recent instances of professorial plagiarism - New Zealand novelist Witi Ihimaera and, allegedly, Ohio State University mathematician Azita Manouchehri - have UD thinking once more about this odd and endless practice of stealing other people's words and work.


November 21, 2009

Two recent instances of professorial plagiarism - New Zealand novelist Witi Ihimaera and, allegedly, Ohio State University mathematician Azita Manouchehri - have UD thinking once more about this odd and endless practice of stealing other people's words and work.

Students, professors, journalists, scientists -- everyone, it sometimes seems, who puts pinkie to keyboard, feels tempted to block and highlight and copy and paste. You read something you like, something you can use, and you find it hard to resist sweeping it up and dropping it down into your manuscript or mission statement.

Serious plagiarists have been at it forever; it's a way of life. No one should have been surprised when a writer whom Ihimaera plagiarized years ago came forward in light of the latest revelation to complain that Ihimaera hasn't learned a thing since he apologized to him for stealing from a history he wrote.

Technological change has made it pretty easy for plagiarists - especially serial plagiarists, like Ihimaera - to be discovered today. The woman (a book reviewer and editor) who discovered Ihimaera's latest plagiarism sensed something wrong with the writing in his just-released novel. She scored her first plagiarism find merely by Googling the book's obscure subject matter. She then began feeding phrases from the novel into Google Books.

Of course you need a sensitive reader, like this woman, to notice something's wrong; without that initial discomfort, the phrases wouldn't get sent through. But assuming a reader with an eye for scrambled styles, a plagiarist today stands a good chance of detection.


Plagiarism of the sort Ihimaera commits has always been a pretty high-risk activity. When you spend years weaving a large and varied theft-garment, holes get noticed.

The legitimate author may still be alive, and if she happens to find her stitching pulled out and patched into someone else's page, she's going to be pissed. Even if the author's dead (plagiarists of course prefer the dead), and even if the author's obscure (plagiarists prefer the obscure), some fan in Oxford Mississippi or Beaver Oregon may recognize her favorite writer's patterns.

And there's the common reader. Much magazine and newspaper plagiarism gets pegged by subscribers who inform clueless editors that they've been publishing pre-owned prose.

Plagiarism is no respecter of genre. Speeches, letters, novels, poems, plays, short stories, histories, grant proposals, dissertations, newspaper and magazine articles -- all get taken. UD's covered plagiarism stories involving each of these writing forms.

But plagiarism does fall into two broad categories: haughty and pathetic.

Harvard Law School professors commit haughty plagiarism; Harvard Overseers like Doris Kearns Goodwin do too. Haughties plagiarize because they rarely write their own books anymore. They're too busy. Ateliers of students and ghostwriters do the work, and the haughties might not even lower themselves to check it. Their job is to stamp a bankable name on the book's cover and take credit for what's in it. Which includes - sucks for them - taking credit when what's in it was plagiarized by one of their employees.

Ihimaera's is the more common form of plagiarism, the form whose pathos lies in its motives. The pathetic plagiarist seethes with self-doubt. She's not lazy and arrogant like the haughties; she's afraid. Never very sure of her capacities, she gets shakier and shakier with each success. Her plagiarism is a desperate, dead of night stab at her betters.


The institutional response to plagiarism is one of many odd things about this odd practice. Universities, publishing houses - they almost always stonewall, deny, prevaricate, and generally fuss about for months before accepting the inevitable. No one likes pulping a book; no one likes admitting that the people on campus who wrote the anti-plagiarism codes for students are plagiarists.

In keeping with their high status, plagiarizing haughties are rarely punished. They blame the theft on the servants and soldier on.

Pathetics tend to get it right in the kisser.

Their midnight mischief dragged to the light of day, they can only stand there and apologize. Ihimaera says he's going to buy back the entire first run of the book. His university and publishing house are still, as of this writing, in the fuss and prevaricate mode. But nothing can stop what's been set in motion - the revelation of Ihimaera as a career plagiarist. His reputation has been trashed, along with the reputation of the university that continues to defend him.

Especially in high-tech surveillance times, pathetic plagiarism calls not merely for condemnation but for compassion. When, knowing how easily you can be caught, you still plagiarize, something's wrong with you. When you know someone like the historian you plagiarized years ago is still out there, and you still plagiarize, something's wrong.

Do pathetic plagiarists want to be caught? Are they playing a high-risk, borderline psychotic game in which they dare the world to catch them out and destroy them?



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