Much has been written about the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism case, which led him to being suspended from Time and CNN. The oddest comments yet, however, come from Edward Jay Epstein in The Daily Beast. Epstein writes:
Plagiarism, from the Latin word plagiaries, or kidnapper, is an academic—and not legal—crime. It is defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” And to “use (another’s production) without crediting the source.”…
But no, by no stretch of the imagination did Zakaria pass Winkler’s idea off as his own. He fully credits him as the source of the idea, stating in his opening sentence: “Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. So he’s borrowing but not plagiarizing it from Winkler.
The issue arose on the Internet because Zakaria was not the only user of Winkler’s idea. In the New Yorker in April, Jill Lepore also used the same idea from Winkler that “firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start.” She also credits him and his book as the ultimate source. So did others….
Epstein missed the part, apparently, about Zakaria copying Lepore’s prose verbatim. As Epstein himself says, plagiarism is about copying the ideas or words of another without attribution. If Zakaria had quoted Lepore (by name, and using quote marks or a blockquote as above) it would have been fine. What he did was not. He gave no indication that those words were Lepore’s, not his.
It is amazing that the Daily Beast, the outfit run by the respected Tina Brown and the current publisher of Newsweek, sees fit to publish an argument that undergraduates are regularly warned against.
It would have been equally unacceptable, if harder to prove, if Zakaria had first copied Lepore’s prose and then massaged it using a thesaurus to make it look different — something Epstein suggests would have been OK. Writers are supposed to do their own writing.
Finally, plagiarism is indeed a legal crime, if the material being copied is subject to copyright. Google “plagiarism lawsuit” for any number of examples. I am not aware of any case in academic circles that was pursued legally, but the possibility exists. And this was a journalistic case, not an academic one.
UPDATE 16 Aug 2012: Eric Zuesse argues that Zakaria probably did not plagiarise, but the truth is worse: he has an army of staffers who write his pieces for him. Indeed, this reminds me of Aroon Purie’s defence. It must be nice to be a professional writer who doesn’t actually have to write. Until, that is, something like this happens.
I wonder how it would work if opinion-makers were forced to give co-authorship to their research assistants (or whatever they are called). And failure to give appropriate authorship was viewed as seriously by Time, CNN and India Today as it is in academic circles. At the very least, some talented and unknown writers would actually get recognition.