Viernes 18 de Julio de 2008

Plagiarism is nothing new in academia
The admission of the leading psychiatrist Raj Persaud of a "cut and paste error" - ie substantial plagiarism - in one of his books will come as no surprise to some academics whose grumbles about their work being pillaged by more starry writers have been getting louder by the week.

One such is Judith M Okely, emeritus professor of social anthropology at Hull and deputy director of the Centre for International Gender Studies, Oxford, who was outraged to find details from her own book about Gypsies appearing without acknowledgment in Isabel Fonseca's book Bury Me Standing.

"Years of living on Gypsy camps, reading and analysis of field notes went into The Traveller-Gypsies," says Okely of her book. "But my anthropological interpretation of animal classification was re-presented by Fonseca without acknowledgment and acclaimed in reviews as her own. Other social scientists experienced the same. Presumably, fiction writers will call this mere 'reportage'."

What Okely and her colleagues want is not revenge, or money, but acknowledgment, which Fonseca did provide in later editions.

Plagiarism is frequently alleged but rarely as clear-cut as that by Persaud, who has admitted borrowing from the work of two learned professors in a newspaper article and in his 2003 book From the Edge of the Couch, though he denies that his behaviour was dishonest and liable to bring the medical profession into disrepute.

Writers have always piggy-backed on the backs of others, and nobody to my knowledge has blamed Shakespeare for plagiarising Holinshed. Indeed, there's no small regret in university circles at the loss of the "Casaubon" tradition of plodding, lifelong scholarship that was only ever going to serve as a resource for later, more dynamic writers.

But the problem has undoubtedly become more acute in the lickety-split world of today, when whole theses can be accessed at the click of a mouse, and literary reputations can only be kept ablaze by being fed a constant supply of books.
Only last month, at the Hay Festival, Ian McEwan was stopped in his tracks after reading a passage from his novel-in-progress. It centred on an urban myth about a man who thinks a stranger is helping himself to his crisps and retaliates by seizing the other man's drink - before discovering his own crisps safe in his pocket. Nothing wrong with that except, as someone in the audience pointed out, Douglas Adams had got to it first (in biscuit form).

I've no doubt that this was an innocent oversight, but just think how embarrassing it could have been had it gone all the way into print. It raises a whole host of issues about the ownership of stories in a world where, as Philip K Dick once remarked, there are more ways of saying things than there are things to say. When Harold Bloom coined the phrase "the anxiety of influence" back in the early 1970s, to express the fear poets have of being derivative, he had no inkling just how anxious things were going to get.

  18/07/2008. The Guardian.