Just How Awful is Nano-Plagiarism?

I’m with Atrios on this. Plagiarism “scandals” have a tendency to get out of hand awfully quickly. Here’s the latest charge against Fareed Zakaria:

Zakaria’s 2008 book, “The Post-American World,” contains a quote from former Intel Corp. chief executive Andy Grove about the nation’s economic power….Grove’s comment was published three years earlier in “Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Power to the East,” by former Commerce Department official Clyde V. Prestowitz.

….Zakaria, in an interview Monday, defended the practice of not attributing quotes in a popular book….”I should not be judged by a standard that’s not applied to everyone else,” he added. “People are piling on with every grudge or vendetta. The charge is totally bogus.”

Prestowitz was unmoved. “I think there should be an apology,” he said Monday. “I don’t want to unfairly level accusations [because] those of us who are writers know a lot of things can happen. But I feel I have a justifiable complaint. It kind of has been bugging me for a while.”

Give me a break. Prestowitz doesn’t have a copyright on the quote just because it came from an interview of his. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. Nobody credits every quote they ever use. Nobody.

There’s a more general point to make too, one that I’ve been hesitant to make because it will inevitably sound like I’m defending plagiarism. But here goes anyway. Plagiarism, to me, is the wholesale borrowing of another person’s words. Today’s plagiarism scandals, by contrast, usually revolve around a handful of paragraphs from another source that have been lightly rewritten instead of completely rewritten. That may not be defensible, but frankly, it strikes me as more like a parking infraction than assault and battery. Ditto for “self plagiarism.”

I’ll repeat that I’m not defending plagiarism here. But on the list of dreadful things that popular writers do, I’m honestly not sure that nano-scale plagiarism makes it into the top 100. Maybe it’s time to get a grip here.

NOTE: I’m talking only about popular writers here. Different standards justifiably apply within academic circles.