Monday, February 14, 2011

The Honest Scholar's Fear of Accidental Plagiarism

On my commute into work this morning, I listened to a fascinating programme that was on Radio 4 about three weeks ago, The Honest Musician's Fear of Accidental Plagiarism (sadly no longer on iPlayer) [Edit: Available again on iPlayer from that link!, 29 October 2015]. It discussed the question of musicians inadvertently plagiarizing others' material. It began with a great story told by Guy Garvey from Elbow about how he accidentally stole one of his best lines, "Oh, kiss me like the final meal", from another song, and about how he confessed to the artist who charged him "one beer" for the offense.

I began to wonder how far this is a problem in our area. Are we ever involved in "accidental plagiarism"? On one occasion I used the line "that with a sharp enough scalpel, everything is unique" in what I thought was an echo of a thought of Michael Goulder's. I later found the practically identical line in his work -- "With a fine enough scalpel, everything is unique". In cases like this, I think it's a bit closer to homage than plagiarism, but it is a fine line. And I bet I've done it on other occasions without noticing.

I have noticed a large number of occasions where scholars have borrowed actual phrasing from James Robinson's brilliantly told stories of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi tractates. One of the lines he uses, "the ultimate act of blood vengeance", is found in many retellings of the story, sometimes with minor variations like "quintessential act of blood vengeance" (Meyer) or "extreme act of blood vengeance" (Ehrman), but more often just as it is in Robinson. The difficulty is that the influential telling of the story is so powerful that the wording can stick.


Trenchfoot said...

Doesn't Robinson actually use "the ultimate act of blood revenge"?

Most other people seem to use "vengeance" which suggests they are not accidentally copying Robinson but Ehrman or one of the other copiers maybe?

Anonymous said...

I think we need to rethink plagiarism, given the great nexus of thought which has permeated our mind and are often (and cannot help but be) unconscious of.

Philosophically, this would leave very little of academic works as original to the author.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Dave. Actually, Robinson uses both, "ultimate act of blood vengeance" and "ultimate act of blood revenge" though the latter is more common.

Interesting thoughts, Rob.

Nazaroo said...

"The only thing worse than being misquoted without credit is not being misquoted."

- John Cleese misquoting Oscar Wilde, ripping off a Latin proverb...

Holger said...

If only the current German 'defense' minister had imbibed your concern.