Plagiarism Without End, Amen: A Disquieting Historical Perspective

By David Abrahamson
Northwestern University

Presented at
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Annual Conference, Kansas City, MO
July 30, 2003

The question before us: "Are we now facing a plague of plagiarism in both 
journalism and journalism education of epidemic proportions?" Clearly there 
is some evidence to support that proposition -- and many people certainly 
believe this to be the case. Examples are, of course, plentiful.

Any consideration of this topic has to begin with what might be called the 
"Tale of the Three Blairs." First of all there's Jayson. Perhaps, in the 
interest of both our time and our threshold for media saturation, we should 
leave his well-reported transgressions for others to deal with.

Next there is Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair. According to The 
Economist, a member of his cabinet "in February tried to pass off a 
plagiarized student thesis as intelligence material." It is believed that 
this was an important contribution to the rationale for the most recent war 
in Iraq. 

And thirdly, and perhaps less well known, is Ms. Blair Hornstine. She's a 
Morristown, NJ, high school senior who three or four months ago took it upon 
herself to sue her school for naming a co-valedictorian to join her on the 
graduation stage. She had a higher GPA than any other student, and she felt 
that she deserved to be the sole valedictorian. I will not speak to the 
merits of her complaint, but her legal action did place her in something of a 
spotlight. It turned out that she had been a very industrious student and had 
written a number of stories for the local newspaper, which then came under 
closer-than-normal examination -- and a half-dozen examples of fairly 
explicit plagiarism were found in her published articles. Unfortunately, the 
story has a sad ending, because, as a result, her offer of admission to 
Harvard University was withdrawn by that institution. 

Though academic and journalistic dishonesty are actually different matters, 
one can argue that they are at least related. In the academy we have in the 
last few years a number of quite prominent examples of different forms of 
plagiarism. There are Stephen Ambrose and his book, "The Wild Blue," and 
Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," both of which were 
discovered to include substantial passages lifted intact from other sources. 
There is Joseph Ellis at Mount Holyoke, who fabricated all sorts of personal 
history and introduced it into his courses. 

The question of the moment, however, is: "Is the Internet making all this 
worse?" Clearly, there is some troubling data for us to contemplate here. For 
example, at last count there were over 100 "cyber-paper mills," those 
services which sell to students ready-made term papers. At my own university 
about two years ago I happened to notice that one of these services had 
actually set up a table in our student union, and sales, as far as I could 
tell, were brisk. As an interesting aside: They had samples to show 
prospective customers, and the samples were printed on dark red paper so they 
could not be Xeroxed. One can only surmise that they were afraid of, um, 

Similarly, when I first began researching this topic, I went, as most of us 
do these days, to In early July the key word "plagiarism" 
produced 650,000 citations. Yesterday, at the end of July, there were 665,000 
plagiarism sites -- 15,000 more. Obviously it is a growth industry. 

But despite all this, maybe there might be value in examining a somewhat 
contrarian position. And the contrarian position holds (a) that all of this 
is not new, (b) that this may not even be more prevalent, and (c) that within 
the problem itself lies the means to its solution. Simply stated, this will 
be my argument today. 

With your permission, let us start with a brief historical perspective on 
what we might call misappropriation of intellectual property. Plagiarism 
itself has a very, very long history. The word comes from the Latin 
"plagiarius," which is Latin for kidnapper. In one sense, the evolution of 
the term equates the stealing of someone's words with the stealing of their 

Literature contains numerous examples of this sort of kidnapping. It is quite 
clear, for instance, that both Dante and Milton plagiarized Homer and Virgil. 
Their explications of what one might find in the underworld come directly 
from passages in the classical texts. By way of explanation, that child of 
the Enlightenment, Samuel Johnson, once said, "We are come into the world too 
late to produce anything new." 

Again, from the world of letters in more modern times, though they may be 
flippancies, we have T.S. Eliot's dictum: "Immature poets imitate, mature 
poets steal." And that immortal exchange between Oscar Wilde and James 
McNeill Whistler:
	Wilde: "I wish I'd said that, Jimmy."
	Whistler: "Don't worry, Oscar, you will."

In journalism the historical antecedents of plagiarism are more than 
plentiful. In 18th- and 19th-century newspapers and magazines, especially in 
America, it was expected that text would be lifted directly from other 
publications -- usually published in Europe, mostly published in the English 
language -- and be reprinted without attribution in American papers. This 
plagiarizing trade practice existed in a variety of forms well into the early 
20th century. 

In more recent history, with the exponential expansion of celebrity 
journalism, this phenomenon has been taken to new heights. Though it's not 
exactly plagiarism, there is a wonderful quote by Simon Dumenco, a thoughtful 
columnist at Folio Magazine, who, in a moment of self-revelation, wrote: "We 
print made-up stuff all the time....Most of the celebrity coverage is total 
crap -- and everyone in the industry knows it."

But the big question remains, particularly with the Internet at our student's 
disposal: What are we to do? My contention is that while the Internet has 
made it easier to plagiarize, it is also vastly easier now to catch the 
plagiarist. I have one example from a colleague at Northwestern University 
who was grading a piece of student work on a musical subject. In the middle 
of the student's text was the phrase "implicit democratic narratives." In my 
mind's eye, I can just see my colleagues left eyebrow arching. His response 
was to go to and type in the phrase, surrounded by quotation 
marks. In 16/100th of a second, the passage with those three words appeared, 
along with the surrounding context. It was clear that the student had cut-
and-pasted directly from a book review in a scholarly journal published in 
1995 by an Australian academic. Such phrases are, in effect, trip wires, and 
using Google it is quite easy to discover the provenance of such signature 

Now, by way of conclusion, let us pull back from the fine details of 
detective work to examine the larger historical frame. It has been said that 
it is possible that, with the Internet, what we are now faced with is a 
"phase change." And by that we mean that the coming of the Internet will 
prove to be similar to the scribal-print boundary -- the phase change that 
happened in the middle of the 15th century. Humankind's way of looking at the 
world,  perhaps even human consciousness, changed with the coming of the 
printing press -- and perhaps we are now undergoing a similar sort of 

At least with regard to plagiarism, however, I would like to suggest that 
perhaps what we are dealing with may be more like an earlier phase change -- 
the orality-scribal boundary of prehistory, when writing was first invented 
5,000 years ago, around 3000 BC. 

Imagine, if you will, the discomfort of those steeped in humankind's oral 
traditions with the rise of writing. I can envision a critic suggesting that 
this newfangled technology made copying -- probably the first known example 
of documented intellectual theft -- too easy. Even worse, that storytellers 
were not putting sufficient time around the campfire anymore. And yet, as 
today with the Internet, if indeed the new technology made misappropriation 
easier, it also made the misbehavior easier to expose. "Hey, your clay tablet 
looks a lot like my clay tablet!"

And so, while the instances of plagiarism and intellectual theft -- which 
earn such large headlines today -- are certainly matters of serious concern 
for us, both as journalists and journalism educators, perhaps there is 
comfort to be taken in the knowledge that the struggle is a very, very old 
one, that the Internet may not be the cause but rather an effect, and that 
our ongoing concern is, quite encouragingly, but one part of the tribute that 
vice must always pay to virtue.

Copyright 2003 David Abrahamson. All rights reserved.