We Need A More Nuanced Standard for Determining What Constitutes Plagiarism

Time magazine columnist and CNN talking head Fareed Zakaria was suspended last week for plagiarizing a paragraph from Jill LePore’s New Yorker article on gun control and today was reinstated after apologizing and having other work reviewed.  In case you haven’t seen, I reproduce for you LePore’s paragraph followed by the very similar paragraph Zakaria used in the middle of his Time magazine column. I have bolded Zakaria’s words when they repeat a string of LePore’s words, not including proper nouns and direct quotations.

Lepore:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Zakaria:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Plagiarism is usually understood to mean copying someone else’s ideas or expressions without attribution. In the case of ideas, the line between learning from others and plagiarism is nebulous. There is really not a lot new under the sun, and it would be preposterous to expect anyone to credit every idea in their head to its original source. If I think that we should lower taxes to encourage entrepreneurs to create jobs, and I got that idea from listening to one of Mitt Romney’s stump speeches, I don’t have to attribute the idea to him, just as he doesn’t have to attribute it to whomever gave him the idea originally (which he almost certainly doesn’t remember anyway). The reason is that the idea is widespread and general. In order to plagiarize an idea, the idea really must be very specific and unique.

In the case of expression, the same standard should govern, but it often seems not to. That is, the question should be, to what extent was the expression specific and unique, but people are much more apt to employ a bright line rule based on the number of identical words. My high school English teacher taught me that copying more than three consecutive words from a source without attribution constituted plagiarism. This strikes me as privileging form over function.

Let’s say I am writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I read in a previously-published biography by Ms. X the following sentence: “Lincoln died on April 15, 1865.” Now let’s say I write, as part of my book and without attribution that “Lincoln died on April 15, 1865.” Is this plagiarism? I think not, but I’m not sure those currently filleting Zakaria in the media would agree.

For starters, you cannot plagiarize a fact. My colleague Adam Winkler, who wrote the book to which LePore and Zakaria referred, wasn’t in Kentucky or Louisiana in 1813 to witness the passage of concealed-carry bans. He learned these facts from some other written source. It might be good scholarly practice for him to note his source (in fact, he does in this case), especially if the genre permits generous footnoting, but the reason is to demonstrate to anyone who cares to look that the fact is correct, not to avoid the charge of plagiarism. There is no ethical obligation to give attribution to the source of a fact, regardless of how much sweat-equity she might have invested in tracking it down. Most of what we know we read somewhere. If failing to source a fact constituted plagiarism, every history book would need a dozen citations per sentence, and every one-page magazine column, like Zakaria writes, would need a second page of footnotes. The dissemination of information through written communication would slow to a halt.

In contrast, you can plagiarize the way facts are expressed. If I copy Ms. X’s entire biography of Lincoln and put my name on the front cover, this is plagiarism, because constructing that book was a massive creative undertaking. The same is true if I copy ten pages of the book word-for-word. But if I copy the sentence, “Lincoln died on April 15, 1865,” I am not misappropriating the prior author’s creative work, because the creativity imbued in this sentence is de minimis. It is an obvious way to string words together to communicate a fact to other English speakers. No one who reads this sentence in my book will wrongly believe that this sentence is an expression of my unique voice. Calling this sentence “plagiarism” would both fail to serve the purpose of preventing the misappropriation of creative expression and create incentives for authors to waste a lot of effort. I could avoid being a plagiarist according to my English teacher’s overly-formalistic rule merely by changing the sentence to read, “Lincoln passed away on April 15, 1865.” This is what he would have advised, but what good would it do anybody to require me to do this?

So what about Zakaria? Clearly he learned about Winkler’s research from LePore’s reporting, but there is nothing wrong with the fact that he informs himself by reading secondary sources. Did he plagiarize her? Did he represent LePore’s creative work as his own?

At best, this strikes me as a borderline case.  Most of the paragraph in question is a straightforward recitation of facts. It takes some creativity to write any sentence, I suppose, but not all sentences are equally creative and they shouldn’t be regarded as such. Notably, Zakaria did not repeat the most creative element of LePore’s paragraph in the Time essay: her conclusion that Winkler’s book is “remarkably nuanced” (it is, by the way, and a very good read to boot — you should buy it!). Many of the words that are identical could not be avoided: Winkler’s name, the title of his book, the names of the states and years that they enacted laws, and the direct quote from the governor of Texas. There is only one sentence in which Zakaria directly copied discretionary words: “Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma.” Would it have changed the aesthetics or nuance if Zakaria had rewritten this to read, “Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma also enacted concealed-carry bans.”? I don’t think so. Is this plagiarism? It shouldn’t be.

Zakaria did string together four sentences into a paragraph using LePore’s structure. Sentence 1: the fact that gun control laws date back 200 years is attributed to Winkler’s book. Sentence 2: some states enacting such laws are listed, with dates. Sentence 3: additional states are added to the list. Sentence 4: the 19th century Governor of Texas cited as a supporter of concealed carry bans. Does this render the paragraph plagiarism under the standard I am proposing? Perhaps yes, given that the governor’s quote doesn’t ineluctably follow from the prior three sentences, although this still strikes me as a very gray area where some leeway should be permitted. At the very worst this is a journalistic misdemeanor that really does not justify tarring Zakaria with the label of “plagiarist” and the opprobrium that the term suggests.