The Man Who Stares at Other People’s Writing
Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, stands accused of possible plagiarism flowing from an article he wrote in the Guardian.
May 25, 2010 - 12:00 am
I am speculating somewhat, but it seems reasonable to presume that Ronson took the quote directly from Gladwell’s article, shortening and editing it slightly in order to fit his style. This also seems to be the case in regard to his description of the Mad Bomber’s eventual arrest, which is shorter than Gladwell’s but structurally identical and reiterates the final six words with only a slight change in punctuation.
They raided his house at midnight. He opened the door in his pajamas, immediately confessed to being “the mad bomber,” went to get dressed and reappeared wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned.
When he opened the door to the police officers, he said, “I know why you fellows are here. You think I’m the Mad Bomber.” It was midnight, and he was in his pajamas. The police asked that he get dressed. When he returned, his hair was combed into a pompadour and his shoes were newly shined. He was also wearing a double-breasted suit — buttoned.
It is only fair for me to note that I am not an expert on copyright law or the legal definition of plagiarism, but I think that the examples cited above largely speak for themselves. What seems to have happened is not difficult to guess. The most likely explanation is that Ronson, searching for an opening to an otherwise unrelated piece, took the opening of Gladwell’s article, made some edits and cosmetic changes, and pasted it on to the rest of his piece.
Unfortunately, it appears that this is not the first time Ronson has displayed a dubious attitude toward other people’s work. He has been accused of this sort of thing before, once by a former researcher and also by author Jim Schnabel; and from what I have been able to ascertain, the Guardian has a habit of ignoring these accusations. I hope that this will not be the case this time; but thus far, a letter to the paper on this issue has garnered only a one-line response, and Ronson’s article remains available without changes. I do not know for a fact that these previous allegations are true, of course, but given what I have pointed out above, I think they deserve very serious attention.
It isn’t pleasant to accuse people of this sort of thing, and I feel it is incumbent on me to state that plagiarism is often not a malicious act, but can come about for various reasons unrelated to simple sloth and dishonesty. Writing for a living and on a deadline — writing, in other words, when one is sometimes uninspired — is not an easy thing, and the pressures of the job can make people sloppy, desperate, and sometimes simply too frazzled to remember from where they got their ideas. Whatever the reasons behind it, however, plagiarism is still benefiting from the labor of others unfairly, and at the very least, ought to be acknowledged and compensated by the offender and those who publish him.
I hope Ronson and the Guardian find the courage and wherewithal to do so in this case.