May 04, 2006

Unwritten rules and uncreated consciences

Some of those who sympathize with Kaavya Viswanathan complain that it takes a lot of sophistication to locate the ethical boundary among the finely-differentiated strata of hypocrisy in this moral canyon. We tell kids that plagiarism is wrong, but we tell them that a lot of things are wrong that they see successful and respected people doing every day. How are they supposed to know that plagiarism is a sin that our culture almost always takes seriously, like murder, rather than one it usually doesn't take seriously, like extramarital sex? In fact, anyone who pays attention knows that in some cases, like political speeches and celebrity memoirs, it's normal and expected to pass the work of others off as your own.

Here's an example that cuts close to the academic bone. A couple of decades ago, X was a graduate student at Y University, a school that regularly appears in U.S. News and World Report's listing of the top 50 American universities, and not at the bottom of the list either. The school's president, Dr. Z, had a nationally syndicated column. It ran under his byline, but X helped pay her way through school by writing it. I don't mean that she edited it, or did research for it, or drafted it. She came up with the ideas, did whatever research was required, and wrote it exactly as it ran. Dr. Z approved it for publication, or at least was given the opportunity to do so, but he never changed anything. (Or so X told me, and I believe her.)

I'm sure that Y University had a policy against plagiarism, like all similar institutions. It no doubt defined plagiarism in the usual way, as "the act of using the ideas or work of another person or persons as if they were one's own, without giving proper credit to the source" or something of the sort. This definition obviously applies to hiring someone to research and write your papers for you, just as much as it applies to copying passages from a book or cutting and pasting from an online source. (And writing-for-hire is hard to detect unless the hireling squeals. I've heard of one case that was uncovered because the hireling plagiarized a term paper from online sources, and when the copying was detected by the usual means, the accused student tried to absolve herself on the grounds that the guilty party was really the person that she had hired. "I hope you throw the book at the lousy cheater", she is apocryphally supposed to have exclaimed.) In any event, if Ms. X had been caught hiring someone to write her graduate-school term papers for her, she would surely have been unceremoniously dropped from the program.

In politics, on the other hand, hiring a ghostwriter is the normal thing -- though using someone else's writing without either a contractual arrangement or an acknowledgment (one or the other) is a big problem, as Joe Biden discovered in 1998. I believe that Dr. Z must have thought of what he did as being similar to political speechwriting for hire, and not the same at all as academic cheating. He certainly took no pains to hide his arrangement with Ms. X. Everyone in his office knew about it, and there was a string of other ghosts before Ms. X and after her, who mostly knew one another. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that there were open auditions for the job. Dr. Z is the only case of a university president hiring a ghostwriter that I happen to have heard about, but I imagine that there are others.

In this same context, it's perhaps also not surprising that William Swanson so shamelessly copied other people's writing in compiling his "unwritten rules". I imagine that Raytheon has routinely paid someone to write Swanson's after-dinner speeches, his messages in the company's annual reports, and so on. It's been suggested that a ghostwriter might well have been hired to come up with the "unwritten rules". As Bill Poser has pointed out, this would be a form of poetic justice.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 4, 2006 05:48 AM