Monday, May 14, 2007

Book Review: "The Little Book of Plagiarism"

Judge Richard Posner (of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals) has been described by Gary Rosen as a "one-man think tank" for his extensive body of writing on topics ranging from aging to the 2000 election to intelligence reform (and far, far beyond). His newest book, The Little Book of Plagiarism (Pantheon, 2007) is a short (just 109 pages) but witty and to-the-point discussion of various aspects of plagiarism as it's viewed today.

Posner spends a significant amount of time trying to develop an adequate definition of the term plagiarism, which proves tricky once he explores some of the odd little nooks and crannies of the concept. He finally settles on "nonconsensual fraudulent copying" (p. 33) though even this has certain deficiencies. The book then discusses typical punishments (best left to "informal, private sanctions, he concludes) and the fact that "the stigma of plagiarism never seems to fade completely, not because it is an especially heinous offense, but because it is embarrassingly second-rate; its practitioners are pathetic, almost ridiculous" (p. 37).

The middle portion of Posner's essay examines the confluences and divergences between plagiarism and copyright infringement (one is not necessarily the other), the issue of 'self-plagiarism' (hilariously exemplified by the fact that Laurence Sterne's love letters to his mistress contained lines taken verbatim from letters he'd written previously to his wife), and the history of plagiarism as an idea.

Finally, Posner comments on the relative ease with which modern plagiarism can be detected (including through the use of programs like Turnitin), and the fact that the potential for success should be a deterrent to plagiarism since success and the corresponding scrutiny makes discovery so much more likely (pg. 80). He takes aim at the double standard he sees between the treatment of students and professors accused of plagiarism, and bluntly states "the Left, which dominates intellectual circles in the United States, is soft on plagiarism" (p. 94).

The Little Book of Plagiarism is notable for its trenchant commentary, well-reasoned arguments, and useful examples.