Tuesday, May 27, 2003

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BLOGGERS ON THE WARPATH: Josh Marshall is all over Tom DeLay's role in the Texas redistricting case; Mickey Kaus is all over the New York Times' latest embarrassment involving Rick Bragg and the reliance by Times reporters on stringers.

I don't have much to add to Marshall's reporting, except this link to a Chicago Tribune piece on a similar anomalous redistricting taking place on Colorado.

As for the Times imbroglio, Glenn Reynolds, Charles Murtaugh, and Jonah Goldberg all observe that one fallout from the Bragg affair is that prominent columnists are starting to acknowledge the work of their minions -- I mean, research assistants.

If this trend takes hold, there's going to be a veeeerrrrryyyy interesting revolution in today's op-ed pages. It is common knowledge that op-eds and essays attributed to prominent people are usually not written by them, but rather by their minions/flunkies/research assistants (go to the chapter on intellectual life in David Brooks' inestimable BoBos in Paradise for the best description of this part of the knowledge economy). It will be interesting to see if more of these kinds of essays are now explicitly rather than implicitly co-authored.

If so, good for the broad spectrum of twentysomethings with Georgetown BAs and Masters from SAIS who finally earn some recognition. However, Richard Posner makes a provocative point -- that plagiarism in its myriad forms is a venial and not a mortal sin:

copying with variations is an important form of creativity, and this should make us prudent and measured in our condemnations of plagiarism.

Especially when the term is extended from literal copying to the copying of ideas. Another phrase for copying an idea, as distinct from the form in which it is expressed, is dissemination of ideas. If one needs a license to repeat another person's idea, or if one risks ostracism by one's professional community for failing to credit an idea to its originator, who may be forgotten or unknown, the dissemination of ideas is impeded....

The concept of plagiarism has expanded, and the sanctions for it, though they remain informal rather than legal, have become more severe, in tandem with the rise of individualism. Journal articles are no longer published anonymously, and ghostwriters demand that their contributions be acknowledged.

Individualism and a cult of originality go hand in hand. Each of us supposes that our contribution to society is unique rather than fungible and so deserves public recognition, which plagiarism clouds.

This is a modern view. We should be aware that the high value placed on originality is a specific cultural, and even field-specific, phenomenon, rather than an aspect of the universal moral law.

I'm still not convinced that Posner is correct -- but I am convinced that the blogosphere will strongly resist Posner's assertion. We traffic in the very ideas that Posner discusses. To us, any theft of our ideas is a theft of our intellectual progeny. To the general public, however, it matters not a whit.

posted by Dan on 05.27.03 at 01:22 PM