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How Academics Responded to My Book About Plagiarism

Editor's Note: Thomas Mallon's Stolen Words (Harcourt, 1989) remains, more than a decade after its publication, the most comprehensive popular account of modern plagiarism. Chapter 4, the only chapter dealing with history, concerns the case of historian Jayme Sokolow, who was accused of plagiarizing Stephen Nissenbaum's Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America.

Below is a brief excerpt from the afterward to the latest edition of Mallon's book. The excerpt was composed in the fall of 2000.

Stolen Words has had, not surprisingly, an uncomfortable relationship with the academic world. Received warmly enough in the mainstream press, it was predictably panned in Academe, the house journal of the American Association of University Professors--an exercise roughly comparable, I think, to reviewing All the President's Men in the newsletter of the Republican National Committee. In 2001, the professoriate remains more inclined to pieties than to the policing of its own, though it should be noted that in the year or so after this book reported on the Jayme Sokolow battle, the American Historical Association (AHA) made at least two movements toward greater professional regulation of plagiarism within its midst. It dropped the phrase"By using someone else's work with an intent to deceive" from its"Statement on Plagiarism," thereby eliminating the most easily copped plea from the plagiarist's repertoire of excuses. As James Gardner, the AHA's deputy executive director, told the Chicago Tribune in 1990,"The conclusion of our professional division is that that was a loophole that virtually everyone was using. When you come down to it, it's plagiarism whether you intended to do so or not." The AHA also revised its"Addendum on Policies and Procedures" to state that if the Professional Division"decides that other action is needed such as full public disclosure of an individual case, it may direct the Vice-President to seek approval for that action from the Council."

Still, academics remain curiously willing to vaporize the whole phenomenon of plagiarism in a cloud of French theory. When I spoke to one audience of professors in 1990, their questions, sometimes hostile, tended to concern why I hadn't addressed concepts like Roland Barthes'"death of the author," and the possibility that there is no such thing as originality. I didn't address such matters because they seemed to me then, as they do now, absurd. The professors don't really believe these theories, either. They're the type who can't sit on the university's parking-regulations committee without getting into a discussion of nature vs. nurture, but if they catch someone pilfering their own bibliographies, you can count on a cry of bloody murder, not an invitation to hermeneutics. But none of this keeps them from continuing to propound imported, abstract fantasies.