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.