Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Copy Cats

So the continental passion for plagiarism finger-pointing would now appear to have finally reached the USA.

The recent  wave of appropriations appears to have started in Germany, with a number of high-profile politicians resigning after having been  inculpated for lifting sections of their doctoral theses. The first of these was  Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German Defence Minister (aka Baron Cut-and-Paste) in the Xeroxgate affair of 2011, and since there have several more, including the Education Minister Annette Schavan in 2013. There's even a website, Vroniplag, where theses can be virtuously scoured.

Now the plague of plagiarism seems to be overrunning US politicians and journalists as well.  While I remember Joe Biden purloining from Neil Kinnock in 1987,  there has been nothing like the density of recent episodes, including, to name but a few,  Fareed Zakaria, Rand Paul,  John Walsh and, in the last couple of days alone Mary Burke, the Gubernatorial candidate for Wisconsin and Gordon Ball, the challenger of Senator Lamar Alexander here in Tennessee. Each time the perpetrator is accused of vile cheating and resignation is demanded.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, for us scientists the rules are relatively simple: thou shalt not find out about someone else's original idea then claim thou hadst it first. And that's what makes the cases of the German politicians relatively cut and dried; they cheated, claiming originality of ideas,  in order to get their precious doctoral titles.

But in the recent US cases things seem to me to be  not always so clear. Certainly, when a politician states something in a powerful and original way, as did Kinnock in 1987 [Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university? .... Is it because my ancestors were thick? ..... No, it's because they didn't have a platform to stand on]  then attribution is called for. But copying bland, unoriginal  prose into one's newspaper article or campaign website, while showing laziness or incapacity for original thought, does not imply the same level of theft. Stating that "a strong military is the basis of peace" should not require explicitly crediting the Darius the Great with having had the idea, should it?

Claiming original  ideas (or  novel, enlightening reformulations of old ones)  from others  is serious plagiarism.  The rest of the bleating is becoming rather trivial.

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