ISSN 1559-3096
.......Home | Contact | News | Links

Site Contents
Editorial Board
About the Journal
Information for Authors
Papers and Perspectives
Back Issues

Mailing Address:
John P. Lesko, Editor
Department of English
Saginaw Valley St. Univ
University Center, MI
USA 48710

989-790-7638 FAX



Call for papers flyer--please post !


Publish a paper or perspective


Write a book review for Plagiary

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License (Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives 2.5 License).




Archive, Volume 1, 2006


Invited Editorials


Lies Like Truth: Discourse Issues In Language

Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are different facets in the prism of discourse, all inhering eiconic dimensions. The word eicon is of Greek origin, and we use its blood kin icon in a number of ways in English. But the word spelled as “eicon” was first introduced by Kenneth Boulding in his work The Image (1956). There the word “eicon” refers to that collection of impressions and perceptions that create “image”-Boulding was addressing creation of a “public image” or persona. Extending professor Boulding’s notion of “eiconics” in the creation of a public image, all of us, I daresay, at some time or other, act or have acted out of “eiconic-governed behavior”-perhaps “always” some behaviorists now suggest-a “scanner syndrome” (being watched) behavior that may engender fabrication, falsification and even plagiarism.

By way of background to eiconic behavior, one school of thought, in the popular “ jargon” of “transformation” best sellers, contends that “self-image” or “self-esteem” is the product of “eiconic" forces, that who we think we are (our self-internal perception internally influenced) opposed to who we think others think we are (our imago-internal perception externally influenced) is more important to our well-being. Development of the “imago” is based on internal perception and its projection is determined by external influences on the “self”. These are important eiconic parameters in the matrix of perception which, as Dr. Henry Kissinger once remarked, is oftentimes more important than reality. To many cultural anthropologists, perception is reality. Whorf and Sapir, for example, postulated that reality is the sum of our perceptions whatever their relationships to reality. Let us consider how this proposition plays out among human beings in terms of discourse issues in language-particularly fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.


The Eiconic Matrix

As sentients, we’re concerned about how others see us, regard us, think of us. We’re concerned about “what the neighbors will say” or “what the guys will think” or “I can’t wear this dress (or suit) to the party” or some variation of the above. In some cases we call eiconic-governed behavior “peer pressure.” No one wants to be “less” in the “public” eye. “Last one in is a rotten egg” we shout (or used to shout) as kids. And so, to enhance our image we learn, acquire, and adopt a variety of image-enhancing strategies (eiconic strategies) which include fabrication, falsification, outright lying, exaggeration, embellishment, confabulation, and hyperbole, to name but a few. To say you went to Yale, for example, when you didn’t, is a lie. If you didn’t go to Yale and you say you went to a school as good as Yale, may be an exaggeration. Depends. Someone mentions a swanky restaurant and you say “I go there all the time” is an exaggeration if you’ve only gone there once or twice. You’ve just got home through heavy traffic and you say “there were a million cars on the road” is hyperbole. All of us hyperbolize at times. This is an innocuous form of fabrication. We don’t pay attention to it. The mother who says to her child, “I’ve told you a thousand times to wash your hands before dinner” is using hyperbole to make a point. Strictly speaking, what she said is a lie. Certainly an exaggeration. But the purpose of the exaggeration or hyperbole is to impress the child with the need to wash hands before dinner. We don’t usually brand hyperbole as a fabrication. We acknowledge it as colorful language, idiosyncratic at least. It serves a purpose.

What I’m getting at is that sometimes we “mis-speak” ourselves, falsify to fit the moment. The words may not be an accurate reflection of the “truth” in these “Pinocchio” scenarios as Lisa Takeuchi Cullen (2006) calls them. For the point is not the truth but the “moment.” Cullen explains that “psychologists call lying a form of impression management”. Some psychologists consider lying an impairment of volition, especially chronic lying. My granddaughter asks if I like spinach as I try to get her to eat the spinach on her plate. I say “yes,” knowing I loathe spinach. She asks: “Did you eat your spinach when you were little?” “Sure,” I reply, knowing I didn’t. Am I lying to her? Yes. Technically. But for a reason. To create the impression that I like spinach. That kind of verbal behavior (falsification) goes on all the time. For example, I’m leaving a dinner party that I didn’t enjoy, but on my way out I tell the hostess, “That was a great party; really enjoyed myself.” The food was terrible and the guests were boring. But I tell her what she expects to hear in terms of the protocols of civility. Am I lying? Yes. But the protocols are paramount in the exchange for both the hostess and for me. These fibs are part of the “impression management” process. In his Confessions, Rousseau commented that “to lie without intent and without harm to oneself or to others is not to lie. . . but a fiction,” adding that a fiction need not engender reproach.

In his 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters in 1989, Jesse Jackson explained that he did not actually spit in white people’s food-though he publicly said he did-when he worked in a restaurant as a youth during the dark days of the civil rights struggle. He only said he had done that, he explained, because saying it was a way of “fighting back.” Was he lying? Of course. Should we hold his feet to the fire for that fabrication? I think not, for his words were words of the moment. Uttered to enhance the context-or the speaker. The soldier who deports himself less than valiantly during a battle will not describe himself that way later-perhaps as he recounts those exploits to his grandchildren. The eiconic impulse is always to place ourselves in the best possible light. In my view, these are not high crimes and misdemeanors. Pecadillos? Yes. But surely forgivable.

Unfortunately, the eiconic matrix includes perceptions by other people wherein they expect correspondence between “utterance” and “fact.” Though not an unreasonable expectation, that’s not always possible because language is a verbal symbolization of perception and behavior. That was Whorf and Sapir’s hypothesis: that language influences perception and behavior. In other words, we can read the symbols in our own language but cannot comprehend the symbols in someone else’s language unless versed in that tongue. What I experience is one thing. How I verbalize that experience in my own language is something else. And writing about that experience in my own language recasts the reality of that experience in an entirely different mode and domain. Thus, in recounting our experiences, we may consciously or unconsciously resort to fabrication and/or falsification. This, however, does not absolve us of illicit conduct and behavior.

The language we speak never really captures “the experience.” Language is a filter (and at once the conduit) through which we “strain” experience. In essence, Whorf and Sapir were saying that the language one speaks shapes one’s view (reality) of the world. As Paul de Man would have put it, the words in our accounts of life and of ourselves emerge already colored (or tainted) by a plethora of factors like emotion, consciousness, education, awareness, inter alia. When we tell people about ourselves, we do so using the most imprecise medium at our disposal-language. Unfortunately it’s all we’ve got-for the moment-until we get the hang of Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld. In short, people are not always who they seem to be nor who they tell each other they are. In part, this explains résumé padding and fictitious degrees. Those transgressions reflect the eiconic need for agency.

When we speak about ourselves we are translating experience into symbols of intelligibility we think other people will understand. But it’s all approximation. Language is never accurate, as Jacques Derrida knew. While the English word “tree” is an acceptable transliteration of the Spanish word “arbol” each word has its own aura of comprehension in its respective linguistic system. Language is always innately figurative. Ambiguity attends all linguistic manifestations. As sentients we’ve become accustomed to that ambiguity-that’s how we cope with the ambiguities of life, of existence, of the universe. That’s why a member of the IRA may be a patriot to one group and a terrorist to another. The production of linguistic meaning is a constantly shifting ground, some meanings seeking privilege over others.


The Discourse Matrix

It’s this ambiguity that most often deters us from coming to an unequivocal definition of the term “plagiarism” in its various forms, one of the modern “deadly sins,” perhaps because the term itself is so ambiguous and ambivalent. Sometimes plagiarism is referred to as “recycling.” This was certainly true in Shakespeare’s time when-in the absence of laws of plagiarism-he allegedly purloined most of his plots and, in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, lifted almost verbatim an entire passage from Plutarch; not to mention what he took from Brooke for Romeo and Juliet. Or in Chaucer’s time when he borrowed freely from French authors (Ortego, 1970). With these two “gold-standard” authors, what they plagiarized (unacknowledged copying) has sometimes been excused as “creative genius” or an improvement on the original.

Other “great figures” of history have been caught in the skein of unacknowledged copying. In 1597, the astronomer Tycho Brahe accused Nicolas Raimanus Ursus, another astronomer, of plagiarism, of stealing his geoheliocentric world system theory, drawing Johannes Kepler into the fray. Even Thomas Malthus, the population theorist, was charged with plagiarism. In Malthus’ case, sociologist William Petersen notes that by putting the ideas of previous population theorists “into a larger framework and examining in detail the relation of population growth to economic, social and political development, Malthus did more than any of his predecessors or all of them together” (Dupaquier, 1980). This is characterizing plagiarism as “ creative genius.” In 1916, a plagiarism dispute arose over whether Albert Einstein or David Hilbert discovered the general theory of relativity. Like Malthus, Einstein was considered by many of his peers as an “incorrigible plagiarist” and charged with copying the theories of others without attribution (Bjerknes, 2002). The matter remains unresolved, it may seem, according to Bjerknes' work, although critics of this iconoclast have noted the disclaimer by Bjerknes, particularly the book's being "intended solely for entertainment purposes . . . [and the author's disavowal of responsibility for] the completeness, or the accuracy, or the adequacy, of any information in" Albert Einstein, The Incorrigible Plagiarist.

Issues of Plagiarism

From accounts in the media on Stephen B. Oates and plagiarism in 1993, I saw little that would outrightly constitute plagiarism. Oates, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was charged with plagiarism by what he called a cabal of “fraud busters” bent on exposing plagiarism not only in With Malice Toward None, his book on Lincoln, but also in most of his previous works (Oates, 2002). Having taken their case to the American Historical Association, the verdict rendered by the AHA supported “the cabal,” stating that “Mr. Oates relied too much and too consistently, even with attribution [emphasis mine], on ‘the structure, distinctive language, and rhetorical strategies’ of other scholars and authors.” Oates denied the charges and not being a member of the AHA refused to submit to the jurisdiction of the organization. But his case raised an important distinction between “appropriation” and “attribution”-albeit an ambiguous distinction. After a year and a half, the professional division and council of the AHA absolved Oates of plagiarism but rebuked him for not having enough references to the Benjamin Thomas biography. This is a prime example of just how difficult it is at times to ascertain plagiarism.

As I see it, “plagiarism” is not “expropriation of another author’s findings or interpretation” as the American Historical Association (AHA) contends. Those are different “crimes”-theft and misappropriation. Plagiarism is the outright use (or claim) of someone else’s words or works as one’s own. Like putting your name as author of Hamlet. But creating a play like West Side Story based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not considered outright plagiarism. That’s making an old idea new. That’s what Dryden did with Shakespeare. We know who the author is of the original work, the adaptation can be regarded as a sort of homage to the original and, thus, considered “a legitimate means of derivative expression.” In 1968, Mark Medoff (author of Children of a Lesser God) and I crafted an anti-war musical version of Hamlet which we called Elsinore. With a lot of license and a considerable dash of schmaltz the work was well received by audiences. We were hailed as clever.

Historically, well into the 18th century, writers regularly embellished the works of well-known figures much the way Dryden “improved” Shakespeare. In science, for example, breakthroughs are almost always predicated on previous work. Attribution is taken for granted. In the realm of ideas, I’m reminded of Stephen Jay Gould’s acknowledgment in Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle:

I owe a more profound and immediate debt to colleagues who have struggled to understand the history of geology. I present this book as a logical analysis of three great documents, but it is really a collective enterprise. I am embarrassed that I cannot now sort out and attribute the bits and pieces forged together here. I am too close to this subject. I have taught the discovery of time for twenty years, and have read the three documents over and over again (for I regard such repetition as the best measuring stick of an intellectual life-when new insights cease, move on to something else). I simply do not remember which pieces came from my own read-ings of Burnet, Hutton, and Lyell, and which from Cooykaas, or Ruwick, Porter, or a host of other thinkers who have inspired me-as if exogony and endogeny could form separate categories in any case.

“Bits and pieces forged together”-that’s the process of learning. Our data banks are full of “bits, pieces, and bytes” of information from which we draw to fill our own views, opinions, and utterances. Over time, as Gould has explained, it’s difficult to know where exactly those bits and pieces came from. Do they appear in our texts naturally? Some bits and pieces are so unique we forego the need for attribution because we know everybody else recognizes those bits and pieces. Richard Brookhiser (2006) likens these bits and pieces to literary “lint” that “sticks to your mind” eventually becoming your “own” words, adding that “good writing is rife with inherited conventions and silent quotations.”

It would be hard for me (and foolish) to begin the opening of a speech with the words “Four score and seven years ago” without attribution. But to start out with “Some time ago our ancestors” and go on from there, paraphrasing or borrowing from Lincoln’s ideas in the Gettysburg Address, does not strike me as plagiarism. That’s drawing from the common storehouse of ideas we have access to. Ideas aren’t proprietary. We can patent a particular application of an idea (a mousetrap), for instance, but not the idea itself (the idea of a mousetrap). Ideas can give rise to any number of applications. The applications are patentable.

In 1988, Senator Joseph Biden’s use of British Labor Party leader Neal Kinnock’s theme of personal poverty and self-determination to his constituents was but another application of a theme that was not Kinnock’s property in the first place. He’s not the originator of that theme. What he owns is his application of the theme, nothing more. Appropriation of his application, word for word, would be plagiarism. But Senator Biden “adapted” an application of an already common theme for his own purposes in order to make a point -a good point. Because the theme was appropriate to the moment of his text, Senator Biden paraphrased Kinnock’s theme. But Biden was knocked out of the presidential nomination box not for his lack of attribution to Kinnock, but other exaggerations. As an Hispanic I’ve drawn many times from that theme of personal poverty and self-determination in order to make a point about Hispanic progress in the United States.

Why is it that I'm the first Hispanic to acquire the Ph.D. in English at the University of New Mexico? Is it because we're less intelligent? Less able? No, that's not the case. After a long day's labor in the fields, our parents would sit us down to read and write because they wanted a better life for us in this country. A part of the reason we don't have more Hispanic Ph.D.'s is that we don't have our own institutions.

The essence of my words parallel those of Kinnock’s. Is that plagiarism? I spoke my words long before Kinnock uttered his. I did not get them from him. Did he get them from me? If so, he didn’t give me credit. Obviously he did not get that theme from me because the words are part of a “common” theme-of overcoming obstacles, battling with adversity, “making it.” And when that thought is expressed by others, and we realize how much it applies to our own lives, we adapt the thought to fit our own circumstances. That’s what Senator Biden did.

I’m concerned about the narrow view the media (and the public, as a consequence) has placed on the question of plagiarism in, say, Senator Biden’s application of Kinnock’s “application” of a stock theme. By those standards, any concatenation of words (written or spoken) by anyone can be construed as plagiarism because any number of English-speakers before us have used those same words in like concatenations. In his piece in The New York Observer, Richard Brookhiser (2006) asks: “How can anyone steal words?” That’s my question too. Words belong to all of us. They’re part and parcel of our languages. Indeed, words selected and arranged in a particular way in a text by one writer and then copied and passed off as original by another writer is plagiarism. But the addition of words to our vocabularies is part of the process of language acquisition.

Let me draw attention to the ending of President Reagan’s commentary to the nation on the day the Challenger was lost in 1986: the president closed with words about “touching the face of God.” The thrust of his closing comment comes directly from the poem “High Flight” by John Magee which explains: “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.” I don’t recall the President citing the source of that thought. Nor did I note Robert Frost getting any credit for the Ford Motor Company ad that says “If you’ve got miles to go and promises to keep” you should get a Ford.

Also, consider the ending of Chapter 3 of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. She concludes her observations on the Chivalric Code with the words:

Yet if the code was but veneer over violence, greed, and sensuality, it was nevertheless an ideal, as Christianity was an ideal, towards which man’s reach, as usual exceeded his grasp.

“Man’s reach . . . exceeded his grasp.” Robert Browning’s words are: “A man’s reach ought to exceed his grasp.” Professor Tuchman’s words (or thoughts) there are not attributed to Browning. They are not set off by quotation marks or cited in a footnote. And there is really no need for attribution there, for Browning’s words have become part of the common storehouse of thought from which we draw freely. In fact, so freely that unless we are lettered writers we more often than not have no idea who the authors are of those thoughts that are in that common storehouse. Additionally, though, Tuchman is aware that the “literate” reader knows the origin of the reference. In my short story of some years ago, “Chicago Blues,” I used an inverted reference to T.S. Eliot when the lead character says, “That’s how the world would end, not with a whimper but with a blast.” I used that expression knowing the literate reader would make the association with Eliot. There was no need for attribution there.

In Professor Oates’ case: How does one “paraphrase” a fact, a datum? The question is not how close Oates’ paraphrases approximate Benjamin Thomas’ words but where Thomas got his facts from in the first place? How does he know “Spanish moss festooned the trees”? Perhaps Oates should have written “. . . the trees were covered with Spanish moss,” rather than “ . . . the trees were festooned with Spanish moss.” I like the word “festooned” myself. Thomas doesn’t own that word. Besides, it seems to me Oates altered the concatenation sufficiently. I’m not surprised the AHA (American Historical Association) perceived Oates’ work as “derivative.” That’s the nature of accumulated scholarship-one works from material others have left for us, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out. Or as Jean Paul Sartre indicated in Les Mots (The Words, 1964), the writer is inspired by the “I’s" of memory: imagination, invention, and imitation. The beginning writer borrows from other writers until he or she acquires his or her literary voice. As a child, so as to feel like a writer, Sartre reveals, “I loved plagiarism” (p. 88). Eventually he plagiarized less as he got the hang of “joining” things up. Eventually we all find our own voice.

Sometimes, however, we have information we are unaware we have or how we got it. For example, some critics have pointed out that Nabokov got the title and theme for “Lolita” from a German short story published in 1916 which he may have read when he was in Berlin in the 20's. Over time, Nabokov may have forgotten that he had read that story. This kind of memory lapse has been labeled cryptomnesia. Given the billions of information bytes that humans process, cryptomnesia is not an unusual phenomenon. However, this does not excuse outright plagiarism. But it does help to explain the eidetic complexities of memory. How bits and pieces of information get lost in the maze of memory or get stuck there like “lint.”

In the world of ideas, a writer’s “voice” runs into challenges when least expected. For example, Dan Brown, the 39-year old former teacher of English from New Hampshire and author of The Da Vinci Code with a plot about the marriage of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene and its suppression, has run into charges from Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh that Brown “lifted the whole architecture” of research they carried out for their non-fiction work Holy Blood, Holy Grail which they co-wrote with Henry Lincoln. Baigent and Leigh argue that Brown appropriated without acknowledgment their all-important list of the Grand Masters-who guarded the secret documents pertaining to Christ’s bloodline out of his liaison with Mary Magdalene. Baigent and Leigh also contend that the premise and factual research of Brown’s novel are plagiarized from their original historical hypothesis. To shore up their charge, Baigent and Leigh point out that the name of Sir Leigh Teabing in Brown’s novel is an anagram of Leigh and Baigent. A court settlement absolved Brown of the charge, buttressing the proposition that plagiarism is not always easy to pin down despite Lyon, Barrett, and Malcom’s opinion to the contrary (2006).

In 2002, the historian Stephen Ambrose ran afoul of “fraud busters” with charges that passages of The Wild Blue, his best-seller about World War II B-24 bomber crews, were taken from Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers. Like Oates, Ambrose’s previous works have become suspect of plagiarism. In a closely argued defense of Ambrose, Richard Jenson (2002) exonerates Ambrose from the charge of plagiarism, though Ambrose did apologize for the transgression. A number of prominent writers, especially historians, have been charged with plagiarism, notable among them Doris Kearns Goodwin and her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys with passages similar to those in other works, including Lynne McTaggert’s Kathleen Kennedy. The most scathing rebuke of Ambrose and Godwin’s literary pecadillos appeared in an editorial of The New York Observer (" New publishing mantra," 2006) which excoriated not the authors but their publishers, saying “It’s clear Mr. Ambrose and Ms. Godwin’s editors were too cowed by the authors’ fame to bring up any doubts they might have had” about possible plagiarism.

Strictly speaking, the case of the 27 year old Jayson Blair of the New York Times is more about dubious reporting, creating stories out of whole cloth, than about plagiarism, though accounts of his journalistic pecadillos have him lifting pieces of stories from other journalists and wire service accounts. The editors of the Times found fraud, plagiarism, and inaccuracies in 36 of his 73 articles. I don’t minimize the import of plagiarism. In 1975, I ran across a piece that lifted from 36 sections of a work I produced in 1970. The matter was settled to the satisfaction of all. Today I color that episode with humor, glossing the value of my original piece such that it was worthy of plagiarism.

There are countless cases of putative plagiarism. In its April 3, 2006 issue, Time Magazine highlighted a plagiarism blurb about Ben Domenech, 24 year old co-founder of the blog Red State who was working at Red America, a Washington Post blog. Domenech was confronted by “fraud busters” who saw passages in his work “suspiciously similar to other journalists” and “uncomfortably resembl[ing] those by writers” elsewhere. About his piece in the National Review Online the charge was that some “unique phrasing” was lifted from a piece by Steve Murray of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The choice of words in charges of plagiarism provide significant clues about the idiosyncratic perspectives on plagiarism and just how difficult it is sometimes to define the act of plagiarism.

Throughout my academic career as a professor of English I have stressed that “good writing comes from good reading,” despite Paul de Man’s perspective of the latter. A key input to our individual lexicons of knowledge comes from reading. That’s why the primacy of literacy is so important in global societies. It seems only natural that reading reinforces the engramming process of experience. This is the explanation offered by the” wunderkind” Kaavya Viswanathan for her plagiarism of Megan McCafferty’s works Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, works which Viswanathan contends she internalized so thoroughly that McCafferty’s words stuck in her mind like Brookhiser’s “lint” in her “photographic memory.” Eidetically it’s possible! But forty “echoes” of Mc-Cafferty’s works in Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life does seem a bit much.

Recently, a charge of plagiarism was lodged against Raytheon chief William Swanson, who, it is alleged, knowingly included in his booklet Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management a considerable number of rules from W.J. King’s Unwritten Laws of Engineering published in 1944. Dated language and almost word for word correspondence between Swanson’s rules and King’s rules have made it hard for Swanson to dodge the charge. But Swanson’s defense is that over the years he jotted down on scraps of paper rules of management that he came across in his reading which he saved, ultimately publishing them as Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management under the aegis of Raytheon’s imprint. By way of mitigation, he points out, in the past these rules were passed around so frequently that their attribution was blurred or lost. Swanson attributes the word for word correspondence between his rules and King’s to coincidence. But his critics contend that “It seems like too much of a coincidence.” Raytheon has copyrighted Swanson’s booklet and has given away some 40,000 copies from its website (Jones, 2006).

When I was Dean of the Hispanic Leadership Institute at Arizona State University in the late 1980's I used to provide my leadership students with aphorisms that were appropriate for the instruction of the day. Like Swanson, I too used to jot down aphorisms when I came across them and saved them for potential use. Unfortunately their attribution faded over time. Not remembering who their originators were, humorously I attributed those aphorisms to Aphoro, indicating that they came from The First Book of Aphoro. The aphorisms were not mine so I could not and would not take credit for them. The locution about The First Book of Aphoro was indeed a ploy. The originators of those aphorisms should have been duly credited. But like Stephen Jay Gould and William Swanson, I could not for the life of me remember who to cite as the originators of those aphorisms. Periodically I see those aphorisms here and there, still circulated without attribution.

Discourse Issues in a Prism of Ambiguity

Theory and literature on eiconic behavior is scant, to say the least. What I proposed about eiconic behavior at the start of this piece is principally anecdotal, though there is an incipient body of empirical support. Nevertheless, there appears to be some correspondence between the behaviors that engender fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. Is it aberrant or wayward behavior or simply a propensity of human nature? I don’t know.

What I think, however, is that there are eiconic forces at work in fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism engendered, perhaps, by mental immaturity, low self-esteem, lack of literary skills, or otiosely induced intellectual laziness which ignite the need to project oneself in the best possible light, even at the risk of disclosure as was the case recently of an American in the Northwest who had been passing himself off as a Vietnam prisoner-of-war. More and more “fraudulent representations” of this kind surface every day.

In the fields of academe, specters of plagiarist bounty hunters or plagiarist busters acting as lexical vigilantes undertake the role of keeping Freshman student papers free of plagiarism, seemingly oblivious that language is a shared commodity, that we learn our language from the “modeling” of others. In other words, all our utterances have their genesis in others, the aim of instruction is to have our students become familiar with the thoughts and ideas of others. That’s how one generation transmits its values to the next. This is not to say we do not hope for original thoughts or ideas from our students. But there is a storehouse of thoughts and ideas that are common currency, available to all. So much that there is little if any need for attribution.

I concede that taking someone else’s text and putting one’s name on it is indeed plagiarism; and as Richard Brookhiser (2006) puts it: “plagiarism is never a shortcut, it is a dead end.” But borrowing a turn of phrase that enhances our discourse is not a high crime subject to expulsion or anathema. Why criminalize such linguistic behavior? Borrowing is in the nature of linguistic interaction. In this linguistic interaction, idiolects are like consenting adults interacting with each other. But this does not lessen the growing “culture of surveillance with the work of fingering and tracking writers who plagiarize” (Harris, 2005).

Indeed, quotation marks and attribution are essential when we use someone else’s words verbatim in our texts. Paraphrasing, however, is permissible, though there again we “encourage” students to cite sources. As Associate Director of a Freshman Writing Program early in my career, I drilled my students in the ethics of attribution and the documentation of sources. Citation is not an absolute requirement for paraphrasing because we’re delighted to see students handling the ideas of others, incorporating them into their own weltanschauung. That’s why we teach the ideas of others to our students. Until fairly modern times, learning reflected the accumulated ideas of
past generations. The mark of erudition was the ability to incorporate the ideas of previous sages into one’s own articulations.

Summing up, some representations and utterances may be outright distortions, falsifications or fabrications of experience. Other representations or utterances may be made only to enhance the moment or the context. For instance, a comedian may talk disparagingly about his wife or her husband during his or her act, none of which may be true. Alan King (a comedian of the 60's and 70's) is a good example of that. Phyllis Diller (a comedienne of the 60's and 70's) is another example of comedic disparagement. The ambiguity of existence may be why language is equally ambiguous. It seems to me that fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are discourse issues in the prism of that ambiguity.


Bjerknes, C.J. (2002). Albert Einstein, the Incorrigible Plagiarist. Downers Grove, IL: XTC Inc.

Boulding, K. (1956). The Image: Knowledge In Life and Society. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Brookhiser, R. (2006, May 8). Here’s an original thought: How can anyone steal words? New York Observer, 4.

Cullen, L.T. (2006, May 1). Getting wise to lies. Time, 167, 59-59.

Dupaquier, J. (1980). Malthus reconsidered. Contemporary Sociology, 9, 4.

Gould, S.J. (1988). Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle. Harvard University Press.

Harris, B. (2005). “Credit where credit is due. Education Libraries, 28, 1.

Jenson, R. (2002, May 20). In defense of Stephen Ambrose. History News Network. Retrieved from .

Jones, D. (2006, April 25). Raytheon chief says he didn't plagiarize. USA Today. Retrieved from .

Lyon, C., Barrett, R. and Malcolm, J. (2006). Plagiarism is easy, but also easy to detect. Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. Retrieved from .

New publishing mantra: Plagiarize or perish. (2006, May 8). New York Observer. Retrieved from .

Oates, S. (2002). I stood accused of plagiarism. History News Network. Retrieved from .

Ortego, F. (1970, July-September). A bibliography of Chaucer’s French sources. Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes.

Sartre, J.P. (1964). Les Mots [The Words]. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications.

Tuchman, B. (1987). A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Ballantine Books.




A Million Little Pieces of Shame

David Ray


The revelations about the Frey "memoir," A Million Little Pieces , like the earlier tall tales in Mutant Messenger (first published as a first-person account, then as a bestselling work of fiction), discredit the author, who'd have been better advised by his publisher or agent to publish the book as fiction in the first place. Not since Charles Van Doren was exposed as a Quiz Show phony has so much ruckus been raised about intellectual fraud. Not even lies to start a horrific war can so arouse the American people.

The real responsibility for the Frey affair lies with the entire industry of book-hyping--dependent on well-financed promotion, the link between advertising and reviewing, and media that seem obliged to maintain hysteria-level gushing over this book or that. They were there for Clifford Irving when he did his fraudulent pseudo-biography of Howard Hughes. They are there for historians who plagiarize with little harm to their careers. They are there for novelists who lift material submitted to editors who then pass on great notions to their more fashionable authors, then reject the submitted manuscripts.

They are there for the greatest liars of all, celebrities and politicians who rely on ghostwriters for every sentence they "write." They are there for the phonies with absurd pseudo-memoirs claiming to be fugitives from Nazis or bona fide Navajos or Cherokees. They are there for white men whose manuscripts are rejected, then published and hyped when they change their names to give them tribal heritage.

They are not there though for authors with publishers who can afford neither advertising nor any other promotion or even copies to compete for major awards. But when those awards go predictably to Adrienne Rich for poetry and Philip Roth for the novel, small press editors shouldn't bother to compete with the rubber stamping of success.

Ask why this de facto censorship (consigning equally impressive works to oblivion) and selective blustering and you'll be led into a field worthy of analysis in college courses addressing the dynamics of lofting books into best sellerdom heaven. Factors include political correctness and the author's profile (hence 'Lit Chicks' -- I believe they are called -- and the new generation of photogenic fiction writers hyped by The New Yorker). First fall in love with their glitzy portraits, then you might work hard enough to see merit in their work. Unfortunately the priority is not truth or authenticity. As with politics we have a culture in which it is perfectly possible for the least competent to rise all the way to the heights.

I regard the occasional exposé of a fraudulent memoir as business as usual. Plagiarism, censorship, propaganda and other forms of inauthenticity are inseparable. Anyone who seriously studies the media, whether in solitude or groups, knows that de facto censorship is pervasive and that some ideas are never permitted into the arena of debate. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn came to America decades ago, he soon decided that censorship was just as pervasive as in Stalinist Russia.

When I taught at Cornell University I discovered that the senior who had won the prestigious undergraduate poetry prize bestowed by the English department had plagiarized the work of a Boston poet whose poems had appeared in a little known magazine. When confronted with his fraud the winner became combative and resentfully returned the money. But he kept the prestige. Professors who had recommended him for a Harvard fellowship refused to expose him, partly out of concern with Cornell's reputation. In brief, they covered up for him, and the student went on to an incredibly impressive academic and publishing career. That same year another earlier case was belatedly discovered, also involving a plagiarist who profited greatly from his successful deceptions. He became a distinguished editor with a "hot" academic career--you’d recognize his name. There are other well-known cases, the scandals circulating around the universities like racy gossip, but seldom leading to an embarrassment like that of Charles Van Doren, though I don't think he was ill-treated after the quiz show scandal.

Many academics give up on sleuthing plagiarism, since indifference is usually the result -- it’s a white collar crime. It seems pointless if no one gets the point. An absence of conscience is conspicuous in both the offender and those who learn of his offense. After a time even a freshman English teacher might feel like he or she is being bombarded with neutrinos, not cheaters. (Computers have made plagiarists far more impressive with their copy work, but also easier to catch.) But why bother to challenge them? As Auden wrote, "intellectual disgrace stares from every human face."

Like publishers, the academic world easily forgives book thieves both of the physical variety and the authorial. A graduate student at Bowling Green State University when I taught there stole many valuable books from the impressive special collections of the library and was able to regale with impunity his friends among faculty and students. Even the curator seemed unconcerned when the losses were called to his attention.

On the other hand, plagiarism can be a symptom of a major identity problem. When I discovered at Cornell that one of my writing students had plagiarized the poetry of the great poet Trakl, his denial turned out to be sincere. He had been so disturbed, the campus psychiatrist found, by the suicidal imagery of the poem that he had unconsciously introjected and re-created it, verbatim. The student was at risk of suicide, and was quietly expelled from campus (again, the concern was for the university, not the student).

Since then I have seen that poet’s work in The New Yorker and in the pages of a magazine where he was shown carrying a Communist flag in a May Day parade. Privately I’ve taken some pride in having saved his life, for I know that if certain other colleagues had dealt with the case the boy might have fulfilled his threat of killing himself. I took him to the psychiatrist, not the Dean of Students, who would have informed the student’s father. “If my father finds out, I’ll kill myself,” the student said. Some time ago I learned to look at the bottom of the human mind in certain cases, and that was one of those moments - not a senior one, but a perspicuous one. Saving lives is a just reason for some pride, in my humble opinion.

Ongoing success after that of James Frey, still able to count on the support of the publishing world, requires the willing complicity of innumerable bureaucrats of publishing and commerce. Did his publisher lose interest in his work or accelerate their fervor for it? Did the New York Times' "Best Sellers" list refuse to list his book? Was he banished from anyplace? Paid less for appearances? Invited onto fewer talk shows? When he appeared for his ritual shaming by Oprah, his distinguished publisher appeared with him, and when he claimed that he had wisdom teeth removed without Novocain, she chimed in that she too had undergone that experience. So what's incredible about it? I was reminded of the good hostess one afternoon outside Ithaca when a guest accidentally, during target practice, shot a hole in her porch gutter. She gracefully took the pistol and shot two holes in it just to show him it was no big deal.

To think that any of those who participate in literary frauds do not retain some satisfaction in having regretted their involvement all the way to the bank is as illusory as assuming that those who have led us into a horrid war regret its loss of life. Be they politicians, authors who benefit, or "book people" who empower the process, they suffer no punishments, have no shame, and take it all to the bank, while the books involved go into new printings.

Meanwhile, The New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, writing of the Frey fraud, asked "O-prah! How Could Ya?" Oprah, it seems, heard the question, and responded by giving Frey another hour of invaluable publicity, though she gave him a whuppin', as another columnist put it.

But those of us (including Oprah) who have shared the painful truths of our pasts, often life-threatening and shared only after years of secrecy and the shame of victimhood, therapy, and stigma, can only be insulted by the preference in "memoirs" for tall tales over accounts of what we wish had never been true in our lives. A culture of inauthenticity assures that lies will always trump truth. If that were not the case we would not have successful politicians who build lie upon lie on a daily basis. Only once in my lifetime has a president been impeached for a lie, though most if not all presidents have told them like the champion fibbers of elementary school. They may not be called pathological liars, and therefore we must conclude that they live in a pathological culture, one where pride and profit can be taken while paying lip service to truth. If we start with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy we should, perhaps, not be so surprised if we wind up with Big Brother and Mutant Messengers.




A publication of the Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan
Copyright 2005-2008

ISSN 1559-3096 .. . . .. . . .