Though you might have trouble finding it now that the round the clock coverage of dead celebrities has flooded all media of any kind, earlier this week Waldo Jaquith of the Virginia Quarterly Review discovered several instances of plagiarism in Chris Anderson’s new book, Free. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a few months now, having read The Long Tail back in February.
I’m not all that interested in going back over something others have done better, but I do want to briefly note something. Anderson and other Web 2.0 figures vociferously defend the right of creators to mash-up other works and create new things out of them. When remixing video/audio, it isn’t often that one is really accused of plagiarism; no one is trying to pass off the actual rapping of Dr. Dre as their own. Yet when writing, such a mash-up doesn’t signify the input of others in the same way, something I struggled with in May when I tried to do something by barely rewriting a couple of dozen articles about the Kindle into several sustained arguments. I included links as a sort of citation, but only because I was so uncomfortable with the process.
Anderson’s book is not a scholarly work, but that doesn’t mean he should be excused from citing his material appropriately. That said, I think the argument could be made that he was ‘sampling’ the work of others and integrating it into a larger whole that makes a different, or perhaps just broader, point. Maybe I can put it better another way.
Imagine this: rather than printed text, let’s say that Anderson is making a video. He uses the same pieces he is accused of plagiarizing in his video, but instead of taking them from other printed texts, he instead uses clips of the authors giving a speech where they say the same things. Why is this not plagiarism too? Does the fact that someone other than Anderson would be on video enough of a citation?
In fact, plagiarism is a broad term. For instance, were I to do something in one of my graduate classes like Anderson has done here, it would be considered plagiarism. As would me downloading an essay off the web and turning it in as my own work. But the latter is outright fraud, while the former could be characterized as merely careless. Inadvertent plagiarism shouldn’t be excused, but it likewise shouldn’t be considered the same crime as deliberate copying. Even scholarly, uncited copying was rampant for years and years until the attitude toward citation became a norm.
This is an unfortunate situation, and to his credit, Anderson has owned up to his error and been quite apologetic. Yet I worry that with all this negative coverage, people will be put off of what could be a book full of good points. The mere fact that Anderson didn’t use quotation marks when he should have does not render his argument null and void. He was wrong, but it might not be as bad as it’s being made out to be.