When ghosts plagiarise

Published on ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 31 October 2008, online at http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/10/31/2406376.htm plus numerous comments

Brian Martin

Plagiarism is commonly seen as a grievous scholarly sin - as a form of cheating. Most attention is focused on students. Some universities have adopted text-matching software such as Turnitin to detect and deter plagiarism. Students have little recourse when caught out.

But when a prominent figure is accused of plagiarism, the dynamics can be rather different. Julie Bishop, former minister of education and now deputy leader of the opposition, is listed as the author of a chapter in a new book edited by Peter van Onselen titled Liberals and Power. Passages in the chapter were taken, without acknowledgement, from a speech by New Zealand businessman Roger Kerr.

Bishop's chief of staff Murray Hansen generously took responsibility. He said he had written Bishop's chapter and had committed the plagiarism. But if Hansen wrote the chapter, why was Bishop listed as the author?

Hansen acted in this case as a ghostwriter, sometimes called a ghost. He did the writing but Bishop took the credit. Ghostwriting is pervasive in politics. Only a few top-level politicians write their own speeches. Most rely on speechwriters.

Many famous lines in politics, such as Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex, came from ghostwriters. It's seen as standard practice - as unremarkable - until the ghost plagiarises.

This is all very curious, because students aren't allowed to have ghostwriters. If a student submits an essay written by someone else, whether a friend or a paid writer employed by an essay-writing service, and is detected, a typical penalty is a failure with a mark of zero.

Let's go back to the definition of plagiarism. According to dictionaries, it means presenting someone else's ideas as if they're your own. This includes copying text without acknowledgement and claiming credit for others' ideas.

According to this widely used definition, using a ghostwriter is plagiarism. So why isn't it called plagiarism?

It's useful to distinguish between two types of plagiarism, competitive and institutionalised. Competitive plagiarism is when credit for work is considered important, for example in writing by students or academics.

In 2002, Professor David Robinson, Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, was accused of plagiarism. Some of his books from the 1970s and 1980s had passages taken from the work of other academics without sufficient acknowledgement. After several instances were revealed, Robinson resigned.

Institutionalised plagiarism, in contrast, is when credit for work is routinely attributed wrongly, nearly always to those with more power. When vice-chancellors give speeches written by their staff, no one accuses them of plagiarism, though it fits the definition perfectly. Higher education writer Gavin Moodie calls this "bureaucratic plagiarism."

The result is a pervasive double standard. When you're rich or powerful - a celebrity or a corporate leader - you can take credit for other people's work and no one calls it plagiarism. Only the competitive variety of plagiarism is stigmatised.

This can lead to rhetorical gyrations when a ghostwriter plagiarises. In 2004, Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor, was accused of plagiarising several paragraphs from academic Jack Balkin. Ogletree accepted responsibility of a sort: he blamed his student assistants for copying from Balkin's book. The plagiarised passages went to the publisher without Ogletree ever seeing them - but only his name was on the product.

Writing about this episode in the magazine 02138 (named after Harvard's postcode), Jacob Hale Russell commented that "to Ogletree, the crime was not that someone else had written the material, just that it wasn't the person Ogletree expected to write it." Ogletree expected the words under his name to be written by his student assistants, not Balkin.

We can understand this case as an interaction of the two types of plagiarism. Using student assistants to write text published under your name is apparently okay if you're a Harvard professor - it's institutionalised plagiarism. But when one of the assistants copies without acknowledgement, that's competitive plagiarism and deemed unacceptable.

The same dynamic occurred in the Bishop episode. It was standard practice for Bishop's chief of staff Murray Hansen to author her text. That's institutionalised plagiarism. But when Hansen copied someone else's work without attribution, that was competitive plagiarism and subject to censure.

However, editor Peter van Onselen hasn't gone along with the double standard, complaining that he expected Bishop to write her chapter herself. Van Onselen in effect has blown the whistle on institutionalised plagiarism.

How many politicians are willing to stand up and say "I'm now going to read a speech by my staff assistant"? If powerful figures had to do their own work, we would have a much better idea about their ideas and capabilities. That's one of the main reasons for opposing plagiarism: it's useful to know who actually had the ideas and did the work.

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong.

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Vicki Crinis for useful comments.

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