Monday, July 10, 2006

Coulter plagiarism?

The New York Post reported: John Barrie, the creator of a leading plagiarism-recognition system, claimed he found at least three instances of what he calls "textbook plagiarism" in the leggy blond pundit's [Coulter's] "Godless: the Church of Liberalism" after he ran the book's text through the company's digital iThenticate program. He also says he discovered verbatim lifts in Coulter's weekly column, which is syndicated to more than 100 newspapers, including the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun-Sentinel and Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle. [Look here.]

From an interview with Barrie:

OLBERMANN: The column from June 2005, "Facts from the National Endowment for the Arts," but they were taken from a Heritage Foundation report, also presented in the same order. Is -- would any question of the authenticity of doing this, I mean, people quote other people's work and use long passages in books and columns all the time, under any circumstances has nothing to with a political point of view or the nature of the work -- are we talking about somebody who just would not put a footnote in or a credit? Is that what this boils down to?

BARRIE: Look, I think the examples you've given today are the same sort of things that would flunk an English 1A student, you know, writing some term paper on the same type of subjects.

There is a similar issue about facts used in the book:

In a chapter entitled "The Holiest Sacrament, Abortion" there's a 25-word passage straight out of literature from Planned Parenthood. It had been taken virtually word-for-word, it is factual, concerns the president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, but there is no credit given. In another chapter, entitled "The Creation Myth," Coulter manages another long passage, this one 24 words, that is neither hers nor attributed, this time in a passage about the galactic ruler Xenu.

One does not find many allusions to Laurence Tribe in the discussion of Coulter. Of the issue of plagiarism of facts, one recalls from IPBiz:

In the matter of Laurence Tribe's use of words of University of Virginia law professor Henry Abraham, Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky had said it wasn't plagiarism because the passages Tribe used inappropriately were historic statements of fact, rather than another author's ideas. [Kevin Rothstein, Boston Herald, 28 Sept 04].

More importantly, one recalls Laurence Tribe admitted the unattributed use of words, and not a whole lot happened at Harvard about the matter. Further, getting to what would happen to an undergrad in English 1A, recall the fate of Harvard undergrad Kaavya Viswanathan. Not a whole lot happened at Harvard about the matter.

As a general proposition, society is harmed a lot more by the passing off of false information as true, such as happened in the matter of Hwang Woo-Suk in the embryonic stem cell area, than it is by misattribution of source (of true information). Plagiarism is not a good thing, but peddling falsities is worse.

****UPDATE at 6:50pm ***

See also Ann Coulter, Plagiarist?, but recall that there is a difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement.

Further, recall a typical definition of plagiarism.
From the Wikipedia:

Plagiarism is the passing off of another person's work as if it were one's own, by claiming credit for something that was actually done by someone else. Deliberate plagiarism is an attempt to claim another person's work as one's own, usually by removing tell-tale evidence or changing words so the plagiarism is made harder to spot.

An unacknowledged use of words, ideas, information, research, or findings not one's own, taken from any source is plagiarism only if a person is claiming personal credit for originality. It is not plagiarism to use well-known 'common sense' facts (e.g.: "gravity causes things to fall downwards" or "World War II ended in 1945") without acknowledging a source, because readers understand the author is not claiming originality of commonly known facts.

Thus, the idea/fact distinction is not dispositive as to the presence of plagiarism. For example, if one presents facts (for example, data) which originated in the scientific work of another and passes them off as one's own, that is plagiarism, even though "facts" rather than "ideas" are involved.

***Separately, some distinctions between plagiarism and copyright asserted by

1. Using even a small amount of a work written by someone else without attribution is plagiarism, but to be guilty of copyright infringement, the amount copied must be in some sense substantial.
2. One can plagiarize any work that has ever been written, no matter how old and no matter who the author, but copying even an entire book that is in the public domain-whether a product of Shakespeare or the U.S. government-is not a violation of copyright.
3. It is possible to plagiarize ideas, even facts (if, for example, they are presented in the same order and context as another work), but copyright law does not protect facts or ideas, only the original way in which they are expressed within a particular work.

[IPBiz note: in passing, Stern's third point might present a difficulty to Erwin Chemerinsky's defense of Tribe in either a plagiarism or copyright context, because Tribe copied the "original way" in which Henry Abraham expressed facts. Of course, the Tribe matter is a dead horse, and unless something else is unearthed, the Coulter matter will become a dead horse.]


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