When an Expert Lifts Content from Wikipedia: An Example of Sympathetic Plagiarism?

Seeds of Hope Plagiarism

This week, the Washington Post revealed that acclaimed primatologist Jane Goodall’s new book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, contains borrowed content “from phrases to an entire paragraph from Web sites such as Wikipedia and others that focus on astrology, tobacco, beer, nature and organic tea.” Goodall admitted the plagiarism, saying in an e-mail to the Post, “This was a long and well-researched book … and I am distressed to discover that some of the excellent and valuable sources were not properly cited, and I want to express my sincere apologies.”

This situation is different from the examples of “forgivable” plagiarism I discussed in my previous post, When Do Plagiarizers and Fabricators Deserve Our Sympathy?, in which I sympathize with young writers who do not understand the line between honest research and plagiarism. As I wrote:

Many college students do not understand where to draw the line between honest research and plagiarism. In many ways, it seems they wrongly believe that plagiarism is no different from copyright infringement: while students recognize that simply copying someone else’s words is plagiarism, many do not understand that rewriting someone else’s ideas and failing to cite sources both constitute plagiarism. Some degree of fabrication and plagiarism is part of the creative process — even Shakespeare did it — and it takes experience and maturity to understand what behavior is unethical.

In Goodall’s case, it seems that she actually lifted whole or nearly whole sentences and passages from other sources without attribution. Such substantial plagiarism is not merely inappropriate; it could be illegal copyright infringement, entitling the original authors of those words to statutory damages. (For those curious about Wikipedia specifically, its “reusers’ rights and obligations” allows text to be used, but attribution must be given and the new work has to be licensed under a Creative Commons license, which I assume Goodall’s book is not.)

Still, it is easy to feel sympathy for Goodall. Writers today are under tremendous pressure to publish quickly and frequently, and today’s technology enables them to copy and paste passages with such ease that they could, in good faith, forget the origin. I do not know anything about Goodall’s writing process (other than she has credited Gail Hudson as a “contributor”), but I know that it is common for high-profile authors to rely heavily upon a slew of underpaid or unpaid research assistants, and it is easier to lose citations when drafts are passed among too many people.

Setting the plagiarism aside for a moment, I am finding myself more concerned about the sources Goodall used without attribution: Wikipedia and other websites on “astrology, tobacco, beer, nature and organic tea,” which Goodall refers to as, “excellent and valuable sources.” I have no reason to believe that these sources are illegitimate or contained false information, but I do wonder why one of the world’s foremost naturalists relied on Wikipedia as a source for information on “nature.” Doesn’t she have access to better resources? Wikipedia can be a wonderful research tool in many ways — and is often the best place to start, but not finish, research — but as a collaborative encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the reliability of its content is often in doubt. The same is true of any website with easily edited content by unknown authors.

At this point, according to the Post, the publisher of Goodall’s book has said, “We have not formulated a detailed plan beyond crediting the sources in subsequent releases.” Does that mean that subsequent books will have the same sentences with quotes around it and a footnote to Wikipedia and the other websites? I would be rather disappointed to buy a book by Jane Goodall and find footnotes to Wikipedia and the other websites, even if the material drawn from these types of sources is only a relatively small percentage of the overall book. Its presence makes the book seem less authoritative. When I buy a book by Jane Goodall, I want it to contain her expertise, and not material that she or her assistants looked up in Wikipedia. I’m not going to spend $8.89 on the ebook for material I could have looked up on the Internet for free (I could have been the person who put it there in the first place!).

*Yes, the second link in this post is to Jane Goodall’s Wikipedia page. I couldn’t resist.


UPDATE (3/25/13): The publisher has decided to postpone the release of Goodall’s book.


  1. As a Jane Goodall fan, I am disappointed to learn this. As the book is co-written, I wonder how much Dame Goodall actually contributed to the book in the first place. This certainly is a career damaging move for her ghost writer and publisher!

    1. Yeah, if the book isn’t entirely ghost written, my guess is that her contributor and/or research assistants played a huge role in writing it. Still, Goodall’s name is on the book. It’s her job to make sure that everything is appropriate.

    1. I remember when Hauser resigned from Harvard. Scientific misconduct is unconscionable. Depending on the subject matter, it could impact people’s lives in a way that Lehrer’s fabricated Dylan quotes never will. I’m glad Hauser’s subject area was primate behavior and not cancer research (for example).

  2. Quite right – I don’t know the author but at least she has the grace to apologise.

    I wonder where to draw the line on attributing credit for a work of fiction, where the setting or the period requires reading ‘around the subject’. The book couldn’t be properly written without drawing on other sources, but does one really need to credit those that have helped you formulate your work?

    1. That’s an interesting issue. You don’t typically see footnotes in fiction, but I would consider noting significant sources and influences in the acknowledgements section. I love reading that section.

  3. Ugh. Makes her sound really lazy. And why should I pay for her laziness. I agree with you. Wiki is a good place to start. And often if it’s a good wiki article, I go to their sources and follow them back to the original places which tend to lead in other good directions. Give credit where credit is due is always applicable. Seriously, is it that hard to at the very least, footnote stuff? Plagiarism these days is stupid. More than likely you will get caught, so why not save yourself all the hassle and just be honest up front?

    1. Yeah, it sounds so lazy! How could her research stop at Wikipedia? How could she have been so sloppy with her citations? I’m curious to know the details of what the publisher will do with the subsequent releases. Footnotes to Wikipedia aren’t good enough.

  4. I hate when I hear this when it is so simple to give the credit that is due to folks. In our day and age where everything can be cross checked and than rechecked there is just no excuse for this.

    1. Yeah, it’s too bad when something like this happens. The time pressure makes it difficult to check/recheck sources, but Goodall’s situation seems more like laziness (as Jae said). It’s odd that her research didn’t go beyond Wikipedia.

      1. I actually don’t feel that “never stop at Wikipedia” is a canon to be followed in all cases. “Never stop at Wikipedia” is as much as reliance on authority, instead of independent thought and analysis, as “always trust XYZ”. It is understandable, however, that it’s sometimes difficult to assess the validity of a statement. In such cases, I think that a much better policy than “never stop at Wikipedia” is “collaborate a source”. For instance, if I find some fact at source XYZ and the same fact is independently collaborated by Wikipedia, why shouldn’t I stop at Wikipedia? Relatedly, I’m going to be shameless here and mention that I wrote a blog post on this issue some time ago, http://teasandbooks.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/short-changing-wiki/.

  5. Important post, AMB. My spirit sank when I read about Goodall’s plagiarism the other day. So sad to have besmirched her own impressive reputation that way.

    1. Interesting. I hadn’t heard about the Lassen plagiarism before. It’s a rampant problem. I don’t think stealing other people’s words is justified (with intent), but I do think there are cases when it’s unintentional and just a mistake.

    2. I didn’t know about the Lassen scandal either, but from your post, he sounds like quite a character — adding self-righteousness to blatant plagiarism! I wonder if the problem is that the market simply doesn’t punish these types of misbehavior sufficiently. As AMB pointed out in earlier posts, people like Jonah Lehrer, Stephen Glass, Kaavya Viswanathan, Jayson Blair seem to have continued on with their lives in fine careers.

  6. Interesting! I haven’t heard of the book or the author but reading your post I do wonder whether you have hit the nail on the head about researchers doing the bulk of the work and must publish and must publish frequently from the publishers themselves.- It seems likely to me!

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