The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

26 March 2006

Ben Domenech's preview

Sean Gleeson can't see the appeal of plagiarism:

What's the appeal there? I could maybe see a reason to plagiarize a research paper, thereby avoiding weeks or months of work. But Domenech was plagiarizing fluffy little humor columns. And movie reviews! Why on Godís green earth would anyone even feel the slightest temptation to plagiarize a movie review? Why not just, you know, go see the movie, and then write down what you thought of it?

Imagine you were the Devil, whispering into the ear of a movie critic. Imagine you were trying to tempt him to plagiarize some other critic's review (with some minor alterations) of the latest insipid James Bond film, instead of writing his own opinions. What words would you whisper? "If you use this other critic's review instead of your own, you'll gain ... um ... something. Just think of the ... ah ... stuff, you'll get. Oh, just do it, okay? Please?"

My own explanation was not really persuasive:

As someone who has spewed about a million words onto the landscape over the past ten years, I think itís a combination of fatigue and opportunism.

Scenario: You've stared at the screen for an hour and a half and that last paragraph won't come. You look elsewhere for inspiration, and suddenly, here's some obscure passage which says exactly what you wanted to say.

Anyone else want to give this a try? And no, it's not a political issue: you can find people ripping off other people's material all over the political spectrum, so it's got to be something else.

Disclosure: I originally copied the entirety of Gleeson's article, with no attribution beyond a single link, just to see if anyone would notice. Before hitting the Publish button, I decided that this might not be such a good idea.

Posted at 10:23 AM to Blogorrhea

CG: Your scenario assumes the best of motives. Without that assumption, there's another possibility: the plagiarist is on deadline, likes what he sees in someone else's work, and simply steals it.

It worked for Domenich until he got away with it. I don't read NRO, but I haven't seen anyone say that Domenich had to write movie reviews. I thought, like everything else at the Corner, that it was just what he chose to write about. If that's the case, then he didn't have to turn in anything at all - he simply saw something he liked at Salon, figured that few people read both NRO and Salon, and submitted it.

If he was required to submit movie reviews, especially on deadline, then your explanation may make a bit more sense.

I don't know, really. Professional plagiarism is difficult to understand. The vast majority of "product news" you see on the Internet consists of barely rewritten press releases. It's not because the PR was very good, but that the writers are on deadline and there's really not much else to say about a new piece of software that no one's seen yet. But in those cases, you only have one source, so relying on it too much is at least understandable.

For something like a college newspaper column, the writer is supposed to be funny or memorable on a deadline. Once you cross that line into republishing others' work as your own, it's probably too easy of a shortcut to give up. How many stories have we read about an embezzler who was only going to do it once to fix a crisis, and then pay it back - but when he or she got away with it, it proved too easy to resist?

In the end, this gets back to the debate about whether we do the right thing because it is the right thing, or because we'll be punished for doing the wrong thing. If the fear of punishment is all that's stopping you, and you avoid punishment several times, then there's really not much constraint on your behavior. I think that's where this story ends.

Posted by: Matt at 2:00 PM on 26 March 2006

Pretty much so; he's left his post, he's been savaged by both left and right — deservedly so, for the most part, I would say — and he's going to trudge many miles through the Land of the Outcasts before he earns back his credibility.

It may indeed be that not many read both NRO and Salon; I do, but I didn't catch him out.

Posted by: CGHill at 2:13 PM on 26 March 2006

Just to take one example, Domenech's review of Pay It Forward on NRO. I'll happily take it as read that Domenech (1) was under a deadline, and (2) was doing research for his piece, when he saw Maryann Johanson's review on, and decided that he agreed exactly with her sentiments. In fact, he agreed so precisely with her that he could find no other way to express these sentiments than with her words. This would accord with both Matt's and Charles's hypotheses.

And I still don't get it. Instead of plagiarizing, he could easily have written something like , "Here I find myself in agreement with Salon's Maryann Johanson, who described Hunt's performance as 'full-on Erin Brockovich mode -- bottle-blond, with a cheap perm and garish makeup -- she dares to let herself look like hell.'"

Nobody would have minded. Johanson wouldn't object to being agreed with; NRO wouldn't have deducted Johanson's words from Domenech's paycheck; and Domenech's readers wouldn't respect him less for referring to another reviewer. There would have been no scandal.

In other words -- and I've made this point already -- there was nothing to gain by plagiarizing. It was a motiveless, senseless, ridiculous sin to commit.

Posted by: Sean Gleeson at 3:52 PM on 26 March 2006

I wrote a long post about plagiarism and one of the many links is to David Simon of the Baltimore Sun who explained some of the pitfalls of writing on deadline. It's almost impossible not to "borrow" a little. That's not what Domenech was doing. He was lazy, sloppy, and easily caught.

I came up with Top Ten Excuses Used By Plagiarists. Don't steal it.

Posted by: yellojkt at 7:35 PM on 26 March 2006