merely synthetic

Years ago, ex-blogger (and current twitterer) Caleb McDaniel wrote a post about academic plagiarism called “Good Fear and Bad.” The good fear was the fear of committing plagiarism that keeps academics vigilant, guarding against carelessness and error in their own research and writing: “It’s one of the internal controls that helps prevent the outright cases of intellectual theft from happening.”

Of course, no one really needs to be afraid of committing conscious plagiarism: being by definition a conscious act, they should focus more on not doing it at all. But that’s not really what Caleb was talking about. Instead, he was raising the specter of truly accidental or coincidental cases: cases where one paraphrases from notes without realizing that the paraphrase brings them back more closely to the text the notes are based on, or cases where one arrives independently at an image or metaphor only to find someone else already arrived at the same place. Cases that might look like plagiarism – that might even draw accusations – but aren’t.

I was reminded of this recently because I’m currently trying to work part of a course paper into a blog post (or two). It’s my own paper but it’s not original – that is, I did the research and did the writing and everything else involved in producing the paper, but it’s based entirely on secondary sources. It’s about the history of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as documents: mostly, it’s about how they’ve been preserved over the years. My principal sources for the pre-1950 history of the Declaration and the Constitution were the 1949 annual report of the librarian of Congress and an article by Verner Clapp in the journal Special Libraries; among my post-1950 sources were some articles in the New York Times (I can post the full bibliography with links if anyone’s interested). I did not, because I was looking at material history rather than cultural or intellectual history, look at any of the many histories of the documents as expressions of ideas. But I kept them in mind for future reading.

A few days ago, I picked up Pauline Maier’s history of the Declaration of Independence, American Scripture, and was quite surprised to find much of what I covered in my paper written into its first few pages: Maier’s introduction starts with a reflection upon the Declaration as a material object and its history. There’s no question as to primacy here: I wrote the paper a couple of months ago for a readership in the ones; Maier wrote years ago for a readership in the thousands. So I did what any former almost-historian would do: I turned to the footnotes. And sure enough I found that same Librarian of Congress annual report, the Verner Clapp article, and one of the New York Times articles I used.

Before knowing that we worked from the same sources, I found the resemblance striking, even worrying – there’s at least one quotation we both used (it’s a good quotation!); after looking at the footnotes, it seemed almost unremarkable. After all, how many different ways can you say that for a few decades the Declaration hung on a wall in the United States Patent Office Building opposite a window where it was exposed to natural light, and that many suspect this prolonged exposure of causing much of the fading visible in the document? (I have not looked that up to make sure I’m not inadvertently quoting someone. Apologies to that someone if I am.)

But what about the sources themselves? There have been cases where scholars have been accused of hiding their unoriginality by quoting and citing sources they found through others’ work without acknowledging where they found those sources. Generally, the problem is with using only the bits of sources that another scholar used without crediting that scholar (e.g. by not writing “quoted in [citation]”), not with finding the sources and then using them directly. Since I worked directly from the sources I cited and in any case I found them elsewhere, that doesn’t really apply here.

Interestingly, we followed similar routes to our identical sources: in her footnotes, Maier thanks a conservator at the Library of Congress for the references to the Clapp article and the 1949 annual report. I found those same references through an article in a 1997 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, which for full circularity also refers to Maier’s introduction to her book. Appropriately enough, parts of that 1997 article also seem to be based on the references it recommends. I assume we both turned to the New York Times for more recent coverage because it’s a prominent paper with a certain amount of credibility and it has carried some fairly detailed articles on the documents’ preservation.

In the end, I don’t really think accidental plagiarism, or the appearance thereof, was ever much of an issue here. I wrote about the Constitution and Bill of Rights along with the Declaration – although the Declaration has the best documented history and consequently got the most attention in the paper – and I tried to include a bit more technical detail about preservation when I could. I also cited my sources and did not claim to be uncovering original information, just to be putting together in one place information already available.

I am still glad, however, that although I picked up a copy of American Scripture some time ago I did not open it until after finishing the paper: I think I might have been so paralyzed with fear of re-summarizing Maier’s summary that I would have had a hard time writing anything at all.

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