August 29, 2002


.....substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. . . . It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone, or any other Important thing --and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite --that is all he did.

Mark Twain

My 1967 Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary defines plagiarize as "1. To appropriate and pass off as one's own (the writings, ideas, etc.). 2. To appropriate and use passages, ideas, etc. from. 3. To commit plagiarism." This definition was probably lifted from some other previously-published dictionary.

Whether something can be considered plagiarism depends on your occupation. Historians regularly lift stuff from other historians, as do many clergymen, politicians and writers of textbooks. As a rule, if you are a writer, anything taken from someone else's work, and not acknowledging it as such, is considered to be plagiarism.

Writers will often unconsciously lift a sentence or two from someone else's work. While this comes under the definition of plagiarism, it is usually ignored because almost everyone does it without realizing it. However, if the writer knows that he is taking someone else's work without acknowledging the source, he is a thief. A composer may do the same thing and use a sequence of notes that he may have remembered from his childhood, or from a folk tune. If he knows where a tune comes from, the honest thing to do is to acknowledge it by titling the composition "Variations on a theme by ________." Composers of popular songs have often stolen melodies from the classics, without acknowledging the source. This led to a popular song called "Everybody's Making Money But Tchaikovski."

Every writer loves to be quoted and no one will object to someone using his words as long as he says where they come from.

Since plagiarism is stealing, it can be divided into two kinds: grand larceny and petty larceny. Yes, people have stolen whole books from unknown authors and passed them off as their own. That qualifies as grand larceny.

I know of a man's doctoral thesis that was stolen by his professor, who published it as his own. It is not unusual in medical research for the person who did the actual research and wrote the paper to find his name last on the list of authors of an article in a medical journal.

One congressman lifted a whole speech from a British politician. He was caught at it. I forget his name, but I do recall that Barry Goldwater remarked that if you are going to steal someone else's writing, you should go way back.

I consider plagiarism to be as reprehensible as any other form of thievery. So did Mark Twain; so when he found out that he had unconsciously plagiarized a dedication written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, he wrote to Holmes to apologize and they developed a friendship.

I will close with a quote from Voltaire (1694-1778) "Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor's, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all." Voltaire probably got the idea from some ancient Greek.

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