Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part IV


During the first quarter of 2002, the press was full of stories about plagiarism. Several well-known popular historians and science writers were charged with passing off as their own substantial passages from other writers' books. Almost all the writers so charged admitted to some degree of culpability, but usually claimed that they had been simply careless and hasty, not intentional plagiarists. But even when their pleas of carelessness and haste were accepted, their reputations suffered serious injury, and even their publishers and editors suffered some injury. It is not only historians and writers who have been so exposed; a United States Senator (still in office in 2004, and busy lecturing his political opponents about their misbehavior) was caught a few years ago delivering a speech of which much was taken, without attribution, from one originally delivered by Neil Kinnock when leader of the British Labour Party.

Plagiarism has, of course, always existed, but seems to be getting more serious and more frequent with the increased pressure on students to get good grades, job seekers to get hired, and everyone to get ahead generally. There are perennial stories in the press about cheating in the schools and colleges of the United States, in which students turn in as their own work entire essays written by others — sometimes finding them through the Web, and paying cash for them. The practice of presenting others' material as one's own is becoming so common, in fact, that some of the perpetrators have moved from the defensive to the attack, claiming that since "everybody does it," it is unfair to punish those who happen to be unlucky enough to be caught. So far, at least, only a few seem to have been corrupted into thinking that theft becomes excusable when it becomes common, but even professional writers are sometimes a little confused on the question of using the work of others.1 You as editor have among your other responsibilities that of advising them on this question, and doing all you can to keep them out of trouble. This essay is an attempt to help you meet that obligation.

Using Other People's Ideas

When a writer uses an idea (other than a commonplace) that he has found in someone else's writings, he is required by professional ethics to acknowledge that fact. If his own book is a scholarly one, with footnotes or endnotes, the standard way of acknowledging indebtedness for some specific idea is in such a note: "I owe the idea of totalitarian tolerance to ..."; if his debt is broader, going beyond the use of a single idea, an appropriate way to acknowledge that would be to say, in a preface or introduction, "My thesis in this book is heavily indebted to the work of Professor X, especially his The Erotics of Double-Entry Bookkeeping, which first broached the idea that ...." There are two distinct reasons for making such acknowledgments, of which the first is simply courtesy. Someone else has done some work, and produced something of value; you are now benefiting from that work and that product, and owe him a tip of the hat for the service he has done you. The second reason is that such acknowledgments are a vitally important way of maintaining clarity and coherence in intellectual life; they explicitly link the many different voices in the ongoing public conversation that is created by all those contributions, and make their interrelationships clear.

If Mr. X has written an article that attacks Professor Y's arguments, I want to know if he has read Y's latest book, which came out very recently, and I want to know if he's made use of Ms. Z's doctoral dissertation, which brought to light some facts that have an important bearing on Y's work. If Mr. X is doing a proper job of acknowledging his sources, in footnotes or otherwise, those questions will be answered; I will learn, for example, whether he fails to mention Y's recent book because it came out too late for him to use in his discussion of Y's work or because he simply thinks it unimportant for that purpose.

In recent years, publishers have become increasingly reluctant to accept footnotes; their claim is that potential readers are put off by pages that are "disfigured" by notes, and that no one pays any attention to footnotes anyway (publishers are not worried about the contradiction between these two reasons). Whether sales really are lost because readers are esthetically repelled by pages that have notes at the bottom, or intellectually intimidated by all the learned references and ibids, isn't clear; what is very clear is that setting a page with notes is more expensive than setting one with nothing but plain text, and that publishers are doing everything possible to cut costs.

Editors may not have much voice in the matter of allowing or disallowing footnotes, but they must be aware of the issues, and prepared to do what they can to see to it that the decencies are observed in any case. If your author is a scholar, and is dealing with a topic on which much has already been said by many other scholars, then you as editor must see to it that his relationships — especially his indebtedness — to those other scholars are made clear, even if the publisher won't let him use footnotes. There are other mechanisms, as noted earlier, to do this: endnotes, prefaces, "bibliographical essays" at the end of the book, and so on; use whichever of them is most convenient, but get the job done somehow.

Using Other People's Written Words

The rules about using other people's ideas aren't perfectly clear, if only because the facts in specific cases can be difficult to establish: when does an idea enter the public domain, and cease to be someone's private property? For that matter, what counts as an idea — how original and important must a notion be before its author deserves a tip of the hat every time it's used by someone else? There is room for some amount of honest confusion and disagreement on these points, and hence for some difference in the way acknowledgments are treated by different authors. But in the matter of using someone else's words there is much less room for such differences; although debaters can dream up ambiguous or otherwise problematic cases, there is in practice seldom any honest doubt about whether we're using someone else's words or not. And the mechanisms for dealing with quotations are clear, and not yet forbidden by the economics of publishing.

If you find a passage — even if it's just a brief phrase — in someone else's book so well worded, or so supportive of your own thesis, that you want to use it in your own text, then it's a quotation, and to be treated as such in your document. The way to do that is, in a nutshell, to surround it with quotation marks if it's brief, or to present it as a block quotation (also known as display quotation) if it's lengthy. The question of when a quotation is lengthy is settled by whatever style guide is being used; if no such guide is involved, here is my rule of thumb: I use block quotations whenever the passage I'm quoting is more than a couple of lines long, or whenever the passage, whatever its length, contains some potentially confusing internal punctuation.

Putting it in block-quotation format has the double advantage of making it instantly clear that the passage in question is a quotation, and of making opening and closing quotation marks unnecessary. Even when no confusion about punctuation is possible, the substitution of formatting for punctuation is a relief to the eye. Where confusion is possible, as when the quoted passage itself begins with a quotation, or where quotation marks are being used within it for other purposes — ironic or "distancing" quotation marks, for example — the absence of beginning and ending quotation marks minimizes the chance of confusion, eliminates clutter, and makes unnecessary such expedients as changing internal double quotation marks to single ones.

Using Other People's Spoken Words

The possible pitfalls in using other people's words are greatly multiplied when those words were not written but spoken. In that case, doubt may honestly exist not only on how to handle those words, but even as to what those words were — a problem that is dealt with in courts of law by employing a court stenographer who takes down every word, every intelligible sound, uttered by a participant in a trial, and can ask any speaker to slow down if he's speaking too fast to be recorded accurately; unfortunately, such services aren't generally available outside a courtroom. The problem is exhibited in the letters-to-the-editor page of almost every issue of almost every serious journal of opinion: someone has been quoted in an article the journal printed a week or a month ago, and now writes an angry letter to say that he has been misquoted. The reporter says that the letter-writer is wrong; her interview notes show that the interviewee did say just what her story quotes him as saying, and she closes with "I stand by my story." Everyone loses in this very common situation; the interviewer feels her professional integrity has been impugned; the interviewee feels betrayed and vows never to speak to that reporter, perhaps any reporter, again; and readers don't know whom to believe.

What Is a Quotation? The Masson–Malcolm Case

A useful case study is the lawsuit, or series of suits, brought between 1984 and 1996 by Jeffrey Masson against Janet Malcolm and the New Yorker for a profile of him she wrote for that magazine, and later expanded into a book.2 I single out this rather than any of the innumerable other cases in which misquotation and libel are charged simply because so much material about it is available (do a Web search on either party's name to get some idea of how much literature it generated). Because Masson and Malcolm had their day — indeed, several days — in court, their views, and the evidence in the case, are far better documented than in most such conflicts, where the only record left behind is that in letters to the editor. And it is not only the principals and their attorneys, but many uninvolved critics and journalists, who have recorded their views on the issues raised in this case, giving us further material to chew on.

There were a number of issues in the Masson–Malcolm case, all concerned in some way with the validity of what Malcolm presented as quotations from Masson in her New Yorker profile of him. Perhaps the key issue, and the one of interest for present purposes, is whether it is permissible to present as a simple direct quotation a passage composed from separate remarks made by an interviewee over the course of several interviews. Malcolm, the journalist who had done just that in her New Yorker piece, said it was, arguing that journalism could hardly exist without it. Masson, the interviewee and subject of her piece, said it was not, arguing that a proper quotation must be not just a passage of which every word was indeed uttered by the subject, but also one whose words had been uttered in the order the quotation presents them in, and uttered all at one time rather than piecemeal over the course of a number of distinct occasions and different contexts.

There was little or no dispute about the facts as they bore on this narrow issue: Malcolm did not deny composing such synthetic quotations when reporting on her several interviews with Masson; her contention was that she was entirely justified in doing so since her business as investigative reporter was not to record and reproduce his words verbatim, as if she were a court stenographer, but to organize and interpret what he told her so as to produce a coherent account for her readers. Masson, for his part (after initially claiming that the most damaging of the remarks attributed to him in Malcolm's piece were simply made up by her), conceded that the words of which they were composed had come from him, but claimed that synthesizing longer passages out of the fragmentary remarks he had made over several lengthy interviews, and made in a variety of contexts, had falsified his views and misrepresented him, greatly damaging his career and reputation in the process.

After years of legal proceedings, including an opinion rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court, Masson lost his case. His loss did not come as a surprise to those with some knowledge of U.S. libel law; the burden on the plaintiff in such cases is practically impossible to sustain since it involves proving that the accused told deliberate or reckless falsehoods. But although the legal case is settled, the central issue of what constitutes a valid quotation, and in particular whether composite quotations may fairly be presented as simple quotations, is not — and for editors, it is one that needs careful consideration.

What's an Editor to Do? One Opinion

What we as editors must do in such matters is what judges do in their courtrooms: we want to do justice, insofar as we can, in the particular case before us, and also to refine and clarify the principles on which our decision is based, so as to provide guidance for others who will find themselves in the same positions as Malcolm or Masson. In considering this question, understand that there is no "right answer" in the back of the book; intelligent and well-intentioned people can disagree, sometimes sharply, on almost every aspect of it.

I am not trying to lay down the law, then, but just to start the ball rolling, when I say that my own opinion is that Masson, whatever his faults on other points, was in the right on this issue. Malcolm is correct in saying that it is her job to put together a coherent account of whatever she learned in the course of interviewing Masson, but she had the further responsibility of making it clear to her readers, as far as possible, when she was simply presenting undisputed fact, and when she was arranging the facts to be seen as she thought they should be seen. What Malcolm did in silently composing apparent sustained quotations from Masson's scattered remarks may be common practice among reporters, but it is not clear that that fact is common knowledge among readers, even readers of the New Yorker. And since she knew that her profile would be damaging to Masson, she should have been particularly careful to state what she was doing, if only to protect herself from just the sort of trouble she got into. Yes, we want Malcolm's interpretation; we welcome her views — but we also want to know when that's what we're getting, and when we're getting the raw material she's collected.

Of course there are often gray areas where it's all but impossible to completely disentangle fact from interpretation — the very items a reporter will regard and present as facts will depend to some extent on what she makes of the story as a whole — but in this case Malcolm could easily have told us that what she was presenting as a quotation from Masson was not the exact stream of words that had come from him, in the order he uttered them, and all on the same occasion and in the same context, but rather a composite of several remarks he had made on several distinct occasions, and possibly in significantly different circumstances.

One way to avoid the problem might have been prepublication review, in which the subject of a journalist's story is given the opportunity of reviewing it before publication — not to censor it or veto its publication, but just to have a chance to offer evidence of inaccuracy if he thinks he sees any, with the story's author remaining the final judge. But this precaution, which to many readers might seem only common sense, is anathema to most journalists (for discussion of it by a professional journalist, see Steve Weinberg, Thou shalt not concoct thy quote). And if prepublication review was unthinkable for Malcolm, she might have been able to indicate, with a little ingenuity, which passages came from which interview, and what the atmosphere and mood for each had been.

We might have been told, for example, if she and Masson were being totally businesslike when he made each of his remarks; had they been joking? Flirting? Conscientiously observing the rule, laid down by such authorities as St. Paul and Thomas Jefferson, that good food should be accompanied by good wine? If any of these conditions did prevail, I would find it hard to be very stern with them; two interesting people of opposite sex enjoying a long, lazy lunch at Chez Panisse, paid for by the New Yorker, makes almost irresistibly for an occasion on which total seriousness and even ordinary discretion might be relaxed. (Certainly several of Masson's remarks about himself suggest someone who is completely off guard, speaking with a candor, even a recklessness, that most would allow themselves only when speaking to an intimate friend, a psychiatrist, or a priest — in short, to someone whose discretion one could rely on, someone who could be counted on not to let those remarks go any further. Masson may well have been foolish in opening up to a journalist as he would to such a confidant, but even foolish people have rights.)

A full account of such details about her meetings with Masson is perhaps too much to expect from Malcolm or any reporter, but there is one thing that she should have included in her story, and did not. Had she told us how she was handling Masson's remarks, I would have no quarrel with her; as it is, I think she was at fault in presenting as simple fact what was actually her own synthesis of some fragments of fact she had gathered. She was an archaeologist who had reassembled some newly unearthed shards of pottery into a plausible pot; one admires the skill and diligence that the reconstruction exhibits, and is grateful to be shown a complete pot rather than a basketful of shards, but one requires one more thing of the archaeologist: that she tell us that the pot was not dug up as we now see it, but was reconstructed by her. Malcolm did not do this in her Masson story, and in failing to do so injured Masson and misled her readers.