Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sourcing in America

In today's installment of plagiarism follies, Craig Shirley, author of Reagan's Revolution (2005) accuses Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge (2014), of taking unattributed passages, facts, and ideas from his work. Because these are books people might actually read, there is more involved than simply scholarly high dudgeon: Shirley's lawyers demanded Simon & Schuster withdraw The Invisible Bridge from publication and pay $25 million in damages.  Simon & Schuster has responded that there is no viable copyright claim against them, and many of those who admire Perlstein's work have heatedly defended the book, suggesting that the claims are motivated by personal jealousy and resentment of Perlstein's progressive politics. The Cabinet, having arisen from its swoon at the thought of any book being worth $25 million, and having shaken off the malaise caused by realizing almost all of the discussions of the allegations fall along partisan lines, finds interesting issues in the discussions of sourcing and paraphrasing. Strangely, none of them can be resolved by knowing how either author votes. 
Rightly receiving much attention is the fact that The Invisible Bridge uses online sourcing, rather than traditional footnotes or endnotes.  Shirley and his publishers point to this in order to further their claims of sloppiness and theft.  Perlstein argues the system instead offers "intellectual democracy, in the spirit of the open source software movement." 
The notes can be seen here:  and they look like this:
3 “Beautiful!” sighed AP, March 5, 1973. “I must say” NBC News, February 14, 1973, VNA.

Is this democracy, or barbarism?  A bit of both, we think.  Internet aside, Perlstein's publisher seems to be suggesting that this is a book that both does and does not need notes. There are no footnote or endnote markers; the "3" in the example above refers to the page, not to a note number.  Thus readers must decide for themselves when something seems as if it should be attributed. No superscript sentinel gives them a warning.  As a result, although the online sourcing does make clear Perlstein has drawn much of the book's factual grounding from other authors, the method absolves Perlstein of the traditional responsibility of signaling to readers where those borrowings have taken place. In that way, despite its technological innovation, it is more primitive than our traditional sourcing systems.

The Cabinet does, however, find some things to admire in Perlstein's method. Offering links to online sources may not quite make every man an historian, but it makes every man a potential critic. By going to Perlstein's online notes and clicking to the sources, the dogged reader can see the ingredients from which Perlstein has made his meal. Oddly, a hostile review of Perlstein's sourcing method, by Steve Donoghue writing in, makes the best case for the method. Donoghue wittily deplores the unwieldy separation of text and notes and the tedium of the click-throughs and back-tracking required -- the "trudge," as he puts it. He then goes on, however, to note several examples in which clicking through to Perlstein's source, whether primary or secondary, reveals "something fudged, something finessed, or something simply wrong."  A strike against Perlstein's scholarship, if one agrees with Donoghue, but a startling demonstration of the usefulness of Perlstein's internet sourcing.  Perlstein's changes were far more evident to Donoghue using this method than had the sources simply been listed in traditional form. Score one for Perlstein. By the way, Donoghue's complaint that internet sourcing is useless because in some cases, Perlstein's click-throughs go to sites at which "you have to register...provide your email, and then pay with your credit card," brings a twinkle to the Cabinet's eye.  "By this point you’re left wondering what kind of glutton for punishment would do that," writes Donoghue in exasperation. "Why, everyone we know!" thinks the Cabinet in response. History, like beauty, is hard work. Perlstein cannot be expected to take all the sport out of research simply by using hyperlinks.
Perlstein's method, then, is not without benefits.  Yet it is still only half a notation system, and his admirers' arguments that the very existence of the internet sourcing makes clear his good intentions and generosity to other authors, are unpersuasive. Simon and Schuster's lawyers, for example, write that because Perlstein's online notes link to googlebooks, they give readers of Perlstein's work a ready opportunity to purchase Shirley's.  "This is hardly the design of an author's intent to 'steal' another's work," they write.  Nonsense.  One can intend to appropriate another's research and erudition, while nonetheless being perfectly happy to throw the ink-stained wretch an Amazon click-through. The Cabinet understands we have a different goal here than those clever lawyers; in our rubric, intellectual property is not simply money, just as plagiarism is not simply copyright violation.  So we actually react more violently, in our wooden way, against a second defense of Perlstein's sourcing.  This one is a defense of its thoroughness in general, rather than its online nature.  Many of Perlstein's champions point to the fact that in his online notes, Perlstein cites Shirley numerous times as evidence that he did not use Shirley's work inappropriately.   
If the Cabinet achieves nothing else in its odd life, we would like to extinguish the idea that an author who cites a work cannot also plagiarize it. On the contrary, an author who plagiarizes a work seems almost always also to cite it. The problem is that the plagiarizer doesn't realize or cannot bring himself to admit, that rather than occasionally drawing on another's work, another's work provides the fabric on which the plagiarist is simply embroidering.  We so far leave judgment of this plagiarism to others; the Cabinet finds a few of the passages cited in the legal claim troubling, and many others not at all.  We assume everyone who has a firm opinion has thoroughly read both books; since we have not, we'll stick to the surrounding issues.  And perhaps the most important is the question of whether citing is like injustice: a citation anywhere is a citation everywhere.  The Cabinet is quite sure that the answer is: no. The fact that Perlstein cites Shirley "scores of times," as one defender notes, or "100 times," as another claims, cannot answer the question of whether Perlstein cites Shirley every time he should.  This is particularly true for works of history, in which a plagiarizing author can take every one of some poor soul's hard won primary source quotations, cite almost exclusively to the primary sources in order to appropriate the appearance of research, then throw in a few cites from the plundered secondary work in order to fend off complaints.  If we encourage such behavior by adopting the "Bob cited Jill 7 times so can't have plagiarized from her" arguments, quick-and-dirty scholarship will drive out the time-consuming and honorable kind, as surely as bad money drives out good. The Cabinet is passionate on this subject, and will personally explain it to any reader who fails to grasp the point.  Don’t think we won’t.

So much more to ponder, but the Cabinet has what passes for a day job, and hopes also to hear from others.  For the curious:

Rick Perlstein's website for the book is here:

Dave Weigel's Slate column, which suggests political motivations behind Shirley's claim of plagiarism and reproduces Simon and Shuster's dismissal of the charges, is here:

Steve Donahugh's review on Open Letters Monthly is here:

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