Plagiarism Derp Reaches Epic Levels

First there was Buzzfeed, which admittedly plagiarized material:

Take that “Faith in Humanity” write-up. Last September, NedHardy.com—“the self-anointed curator of the Internet,” a kind of poor man’s BuzzFeed—posted an item called, “7 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” Then, last month, NedHardy posted another piece, “13 Pictures To Help You Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” Half of the photos in BuzzFeed’s post appear in NedHardy’s two compilations. NedHardy isn’t mentioned anywhere in BuzzFeed’s “21 Pictures” post.

Then the derp began to grow. Rick Perlstein, author of a new Reagan biography, has been accused of plagiarism in what seems to be a political tactic:

In the letters, Shirley [a longtime political operative] claims that Perlstein lifted “without attribution” passages from “Reagan’s Revolution,” and substantially ripped off his work even when attributing. He demands that all copies of “The Invisible Bridge” be destroyed, with an additional request of a public apology and $25 million in damages.

In the letters, Shirley claims that Perlstein lifted “without attribution” passages from “Reagan’s Revolution,” and substantially ripped off his work even when attributing. He demands that all copies of “The Invisible Bridge” be destroyed, with an additional request of a public apology and $25 million in damages.

Rick Perlstein would have to be the worst plagiarist in history, by citing his victim 125 times in source notes and thanking him in the acknowledgments.

And then there’s Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, who has been accused by bloggers of passage rip-offs like this:

Or take this example, where Zakaria happens to write 11 words in the exact same order as they appeared in a Peter Beinart article.
Beinart

This is insane. Let’s start with the Buzzfeed example. Certainly Buzzfeed did build off the work of Ned Hardy without attribution. Just as Ned Hardy posted photos he had seen elsewhere without hat-tipping those who had found them. Just as he took Buzzfeed’s famous formula of “X pictures that Y” and put it to use on his site.

The Reagan example is a bit of an odd case, but speaks to the dangers of this road. The Zakaria example borders on parody.

What is it that we’re arguing here? That Zakaria should spend time rewriting a sentence like “In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered a stunning 80% of major legislation.”? For what purpose? What if that is the most obvious way to say it, and other formulations just subtract from the impact?

What do we expect would happen if Zakaria cited Beinart for this sentence? What damage has occurred to Beinart as a result of Zakaria not citing it? Was there a legion of Zakaria fans who would have said — “Wow, that sentence from Beinart is brilliant — I need to read more Beinart!”

These things seem small, but they are not. Much (if not most) of our daily work flows written descriptions, curation of resources, and other recomposition of texts. Developing a culture that allowed for fluid reuse of the work of others would free up our capacity to solve problems instead of wasting time rearranging clauses. We are held back from fluid reuse by cultural conventions which force us to see wholesale copying of unique insights and pedestrian descriptions of Senate procedure as the same thing. We are held back by technologies that have not moved past cut-and-paste models of reuse. We are held back by the plagiarism police who demand that our attributions be placed in ways that break the flow of reading, or send users to source websites only to find the source was linked for trivial reasons.

Some people need to make a living off of words, and the reputation generated by their words. We need to preserve that. But we also need to radically rethink plagiarism if we are going to take advantage of the ability the web gives us to build off of the work of others. And we seem to be going in the opposite direction.

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One thought on “Plagiarism Derp Reaches Epic Levels

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