The P Word

20 11 2006

Once again a plagiarism controversy is heating up the blogosphere – at least, the Civil War blogosphere.  Joining the ranks of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and James Lee McDonough is one R. Fred Ruhlman, author of Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison: A ReappraisalI’m not going to rehash the details here, you can Google for them yourself.  Suffice to say it appears that some sizeable passages in the Ruhlman book are strikingly similar to some found in William Marvel’s Andersonville: The Last Depot.

I don’t think anything can be made of whether or not the individual authors involved are academics or non-academics, or whether the publishers involved are university or trade.  I can find no basis for an argument that one type of author or one type of publisher is more prone to, should be held more responsible for, or somehow (as one blogger seems to weakly argue) has an easier or tougher task in monitoring plagiarism than any other type.


What constitutes plagiarism has changed over the years.  Read enough newspaper articles from the Civil War period and you’ll find it was common practice.  Heck, read enough “eyewitness accounts” of battle and you’ll be amazed by how many individuals in different regiments on different parts of the same field saw exactly the same things and expressed themselves in precisely the same terms.

I think that plagiarism, by whatever definition you choose, occurs and has occurred more often than any of us can imagine.  And I (perhaps naively) believe that most of these acts are inadvertent.  The mechanical process of preparing a manuscript, particularly a non-fiction manuscript, has changed significantly over the past 15-20 years.  Lots more cutting and pasting.  The use of assistants increases the possibility of “borrowed” material being used without attribution or without sufficient modification.  Practically speaking, if one argues that plagiarism must be a conscious act, I think it can be persuasively demonstrated that not plagiarizing is a conscious act as well.  How many authors have struggled to find yet another way to say “Reynolds reeled in the saddle”?

As more and more texts become digitized, the use of plagiarism checking software like Turnitin should decrease the likelihood that new works will contain plagiarized material.  And the existence of these programs will in turn increase the liability of publishers who do not use them, and instead depend on imperfect peer review and author honesty and diligence.

What will be most interesting to me is what happens when older works are tested by the ever improving plagiarism software.  It’s bound to happen sooner or later.



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