Entries in "Writing"

February 13, 2011

Belated anniversary commemoration

What with one thing and another, I forgot to mark the sixth anniversary of this blog, which began on January 26, 2005. I never imagined that it would continue for this long. I estimate that I have written close to two million words. For most of the time, the blog consisted of an op-ed length essay every weekday but last year I started adding some short posts as well.

I am now undertaking a new book project that will take up some time so I may have to cut back on the essays a bit. These take more time because they consist of reasoned arguments that have to be thought through and worded more carefully. But at the same time, those essays are the ones I like the most because I also learn from researching and writing them, so they will not disappear.

Thanks to all the people out there who read and comment.

January 15, 2011


As someone who reads and writes a lot, I have got attuned to the rhythm of words. When someone uses a cliché, it is as jarring to me as a sudden wrong note in a piece of music.

I personally try to avoid clichés as much as possible and in trying to be alert to them, I started keeping a list of those that I hear that immediately trigger a negative response in me. Here is my list so far:

Speak truth to power
Last time I checked (when used in a sarcastic way)
Think outside the box
When the rubber meets the road
Hit the ground running
A perfect storm
Connect the dots
Light at the end of the tunnel
Start with a clean slate

Anyone else have phrases that grate on the ears (itself a phrase that is on the edge of entering clichedom) that they want to add to this list?

January 08, 2011

Pointless dedication

Take a look at this passage below and see if you notice anything unusual about it.

Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary "fill-ins" as "romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road." Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds ; robins carolling at twilight, nor any "warm glow of lamplight" from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn out notion that "a child don't know anything."

Not notice anything, other than the author's love affair with quotation marks? That is not a surprise because it is quite subtle. What is noteworthy is that passage does not contain the letter 'E' even though in normal English that letter is the most frequently used and occurs roughly 13% of the time. The above paragraph is taken from the 267-page 1939 novel Gadsby written by Ernest Vincent Wright where he avoided that letter entirely.

Such letter avoidance is not that unusual apparently. John R. Pierce in his book An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals, and Noise (1980, p. 48) gives other examples.

Gottlob Burmann, a German poet who lived from 1737 to 1805, wrote 130 poems, including a total of 20,000 words, without once its using the letter R. Further, during the last seventeen years of his or life, Burmann even omitted the letter from his daily conversation.

In each of five stories published by Alonso Alcala y Herrera in Lisbon in 1641 a different vowel was suppressed. Francisco Navarrete y Ribera (1659), Fernando Jacinto de Zurita y Haro (1654), and Manuel Lorenzo de Lizarazu y Berbuizana (1654) provided other examples.

When I read about such people, I have a reaction that wavers between admiration at the dedication and the single-mindedness that such acts require, and bemusement at the sheer pointlessness of it all. Since we knew in advance, in principle, that what they did could be done, there seems to be no reason to do these kinds of things other than to show that there exists someone somewhere willing to spend the time and effort to do it. The Guinness Book of Records seems to consist of a lot of items like this, making it a repository of human pointless dedication.

January 25, 2008

Anniversary reflections on this blog

Today's post will mark the completing of three years since this blog began. Although I tend to ignore anniversaries of any kind, they do provide convenient points at which to step back and look at the big picture, to reflect on what was achieved, what was not, and where one should be going.

I have been on a regimen of writing five op-ed type essays a week, resulting over the last three years in over 700 essays and close to 900,000 words. The blog has registered about three million hits.

While it is not easy to produce this level of output, it is not that hard either, provided one is interested in what one is writing about. One of the consequences of producing this output is that I now have extreme contempt for most of the well-known columnists (david Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Charles Krauthammer, David Broder, Richard Cohen, etc.) that occupy the pages of newspapers and magazines. Many of the better known ones are employed full time and have paid researchers to help them gather material for their columns. Given all those resources, it is remarkable how vapid and lacking in content their columns are.

Let me make clear that I am not saying that I am better than them. But given that I have a full-time job and have to do all my own research and edit my own work on my own time, I feel that these columnists should be producing far better output, instead of the superficial dreck they currently do that wastes so much newsprint. In fact, there are very many writers on the web (Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Matthew Yglesias, Steve Benen, Juan Cole, Stephen Zunes, Robert Jensen, the pseudonymous Digby, Justin Raimondo, Jim Lobe, Ray McGovern, Greg Sargent, Paul Craig Roberts, Alexander Cockburn, to name just a few off the top of my head) who produce far, far better political analyses than the so-called elite columnists, and many of them are also writing on their own and on their own time. These good web writers not only have sharper intellects and biting prose styles, they provide links to the sources so one can see if the facts on which they base their analyses warrant their conclusions. In contrast, the well-known op-ed writers tend to rely on Villager cocktail party chatter and unnamed sources, making their output more like political gossip columns

On the basis of the quality of the content, the traditional columnist should have long ago become extinct. But we must remember that these columnists serve a much more important purpose than informing readers and it is this that keeps them around. These columnists are like the goal posts on a football field, they define the boundaries within which the political game must be played, with the so-called liberals at one end and the so-called conservatives at the other end. To be considered 'respectable' and be invited to play, one must tacitly agree to stay within these defined boundaries. Step outside those boundaries, or even question the rules of the game, and you are out of the game and summarily excluded. You are no longer 'serious', just some kind of wild-eyed, irrational ideologue.

Furthermore, the so-called liberals and so-called conservatives are both part of the one pro-business/pro-war party that rules this country. They are all Villagers.

Writing this blog has been of benefit to me personally. The sheer discipline that it forces on me to write daily has resulted in greater productivity. Last year I had five articles accepted for publication, three of which started out as extensive blog entries, which meant that I had done much of the research and writing and editing long before I considered submitting it to a journal. The other two articles were also to easy to write because of the discipline that has been imposed on me by trying to meet the demands of the blog. The blog has made me a far more efficient writer, if not necessarily a better one.

There is one thing about the blog that I have still not quite come to terms with, and that is the personal exposure. I am by nature a private person and initially saw myself only writing about abstract ideas in a coolly analytical way, without revealing much about myself. But it is hard to maintain that level of detachment when one is passionate about something. Although I do not dwell on the details of my personal life (which is very boring anyway), I have discovered what writers know, that you cannot help but reveal things about yourself whenever you write about anything you care about. You inevitably reveal your attitudes and values.

I have tried to come to terms with the fact that regular readers of this blog must have a pretty good idea about what drives me as a person. I still find it disconcerting, however, when I meet someone for the first time and that person says "Oh, I read your blog", because I realize that that person knows quite a bit about me while I know nothing about that person.

But that is a minor discomfort. The blog has been a source of intellectual stimulus for me. It has not yet reached a stage where I have run out of new ideas to write about and start repeating myself, although reading some of the old entries I find myself surprised at some of the things I had forgotten I said. But so far, I have not regretted anything that I have posted or found anything completely wrong, except for predictions for the winners of political contests where I am almost always wrong.

The blog is still fun for me, which I why I keep writing. Thanks for reading.

April 17, 2006

On writing-5: The three stages of writing

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 in the series.)

I believe that part of the reasons students end up plagiarizing, either inadvertently or otherwise, is that they underestimate the time it takes to write. This is because they think that writing only occurs when they are actually putting words on paper or typing on a keyboard.

But writing involves really three phases: prewriting, writing, and post-writing.

Pre-writing probably takes the most time and often does not involve the physical act of writing at all. This is the time when the author is mulling things over in his mind, sorting ideas out, trying to find the main point he is trying to make, asking what kinds of evidence is necessary and what documents should be read for background, and seeking out those sources of information. It also involves (for some) sketching out an outline and making rough notes. It is during this process of slow digestion that you start the important process of synthesizing the ideas that you have got from many sources and making something of your own

Prewriting is best done in a conscious but unrushed manner. For me, most of this prewriting is done in my head while doing other things such as walking or driving somewhere or doing routine chores or in those moments before falling asleep or just after waking. During those times, I am thinking of what to write, even to the extent of mentally creating actual lines of text, examples, and turns of phrase. I do this deliberately and consciously. In the SAGES Peer Writing Crew blog, Nicole Sharp says she thinks about writing while walking between classes, composing sentences in her head. This is an example of using time wisely, because some of the best ideas come to us when we are not consciously trying to generate them. It is to avoid interrupting this kind of prewriting that I have resisted carrying a cell phone or a Blackberry.

I think students may not appreciate how important this pre-writing phase is to writing. When given an assignment, they may wait until shortly before it is due and set aside a large block of time that they think is sufficient to write the five page paper or whatever it is that is required. But then they hit a block and don't know what to say or how to say it because they have not gone through the important pre-writing phase. Without being aware of it, they are trying to compress the pre-writing and writing phases into one. But when you try to do that, it is hard to find your own perspective on a topic. So you end up using ideas from one or a few sources, mashing them together, while paraphrasing them to make it look like your own, thus running the risk of plagiarizing.

Instructors are partly to blame for this. We may not be informing students of the importance of prewriting, and in fact may be undermining that practice by giving short deadlines that do not really allow much time for the kind of thoughtful contemplation it requires. I am not sure how to structure writing assignments in my courses so that students get in the habit of prewriting but it is definitely something I am going to pay more attention to in my next course.

The post-writing phase is equally important, but equally neglected. This involves much more than simply editing the work. Editing for me means simply tightening things up, checking for grammar, improving word choice, and avoiding stylistic ugliness. The more important aspect of post-writing that once the writing phase has put my ideas into a concrete form, I can now keep returning to it, probing it, looking to see how to make it better. This may involve restructuring the argument, providing more evidence, finding a fresh image to capture an idea, inventing a telling metaphor, or looking for better sources. I like to let time percolate through the words I have written, creating a richer text.

All these things are best done in a conscious but unrushed manner. Most of this post-writing takes place in my mind while doing other things, like the prewriting phase. But this requires that we set aside time for it after the writing phase. If we are rushing to meet a deadline, this will not occur.

It is only the writing and editing parts that actually take up any 'real' time. All the other things can be done while living one's life doing other things.

The pre-writing phase takes up the most time for me, followed by the post-writing phase, with the actual writing taking up the least time. When people ask me how long it took me to write either of my books, it is hard for me to answer. I usually say about six months because that is the time the actual writing phase took, and this is what people usually mean by 'writing.' But the prewriting phase that led up to each lasted much, much longer.

The same thing holds for these blog entries. The entire week's entries take me about five to ten hours total of actual writing, depending on the topic. But before I write them, I have done a lot of pre-writing on each topic, doing research, collecting notes and creating the structure in my mind, all done in bits and pieces scattered over time, so that when I actually sit down and write (the writing phase), the words and ideas come fairly easily.

I also write almost all the week's entries during the weekend prior to their posting. One reason for this practice is that the weekend is when I have more time to write. But the main reason is that after the writing is done, I have time to let my thoughts simmer and do some post-writing in my mind, enabling me to polish the entries during the week, before I actually post them.

The exceptions to this rule occur when something comes up in the news during the week that I feel impelled to respond to immediately, like the call center item last week or the Tiktaalik discovery the previous week. But even in these cases, the reason I can respond so promptly is that these topics have touched on something that I either care about a lot or know quite a bit about, which means that I have pretty much done the prewriting in my mind already, although I did not have a plan to actually write about it. I still leave some time for post-writing, even in these cases, usually by completing the writing the night before the morning posting.

But since students working on a short deadline do not have, or are aware of the need for creating, the time for pre- or post-writing, they end up producing work that is of lower quality than they are capable of. The challenge for instructors and students is how to help students become aware of the immense importance of the prewriting and post-writing phases, and how to structure assignments and deadlines to help them get used to doing it and have the time to do so.

Peter Elbow, in his book Everyone Can Write, gives some valuable advice. He recommends that writers create two distinct mindsets when writing. One mindset is a very accepting one, where any idea that comes into one's head, any sentence, any image or metaphor, is accepted by the author as being wonderful and written down or stored away for use. This attitude is great in the prewriting phase, because it enables you to generate a lot of ideas.

The second mindset is the critical one, where we evaluate what we have written and ask whether it is worth retaining, whether it should be improved upon, or phrased better. This is best done in the post-writing phase.

Many of us get stuck in our writing because we are trying to do both things simultaneously. An idea comes into our head and we immediately start to analyze or critique it wondering whether it should be included or not. This blocks our progress and we get stuck.

Of course, none of these distinctions can be really rigid. When we are critiquing an idea in the post-writing phase, that might generate a new idea and we have to switch to an accepting phase. But being aware that an attitude that is accepting of ideas and one that is critical of ideas have to be adopted as the need arises can prevent one from having that awful feeling of thinking that one has 'nothing to say.' We all have something to say. It is just that we do not know if it is worth saying. It helps to postpone that judgment.

Realizing that we need to say whatever is on our minds and only later judge whether it is worth saying is a good habit to cultivate.

This series of postings on writing is, in itself, an illustration of how writing grows. I had initially only meant to write about the plagiarism issue, triggered by the Ben Domenech fiasco in the Washington Post. But as I wrote about it, the topic branched off into many related areas, and ideas occurred to me that were not there when I started.

So I guess the lesson to be taken from all this is that you should just start writing about anything you care about, and see where it goes. You will probably be surprised at where you end up.

POST SCRIPT: Where the religious people are

Ever wondered where Catholics are most concentrated in the US? How about Mennonites? Jews? Muslims? Lutherans? Well, now you can find out with this series of maps that shows, county by county, the density of populations of the various religious denominations.

It did not provide a breakdown for atheists. This is because they were getting their numbers from the membership lists of religious institutions in each area and atheists don't have formal groups. What was interesting, though, was that there were a surprisingly large numbers of counties where the total number of religious adherents of any stripe was less than 50%.

April 13, 2006

On writing-4: The role of originality

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3 in the series.)

So why do people end up sometimes plagiarizing? There are many reasons. Apart from the few who deliberately set out to do it because they are too lazy to do any actual writing of their own and lack any compunction about plagiarizing, I believe most end up doing it out of fear that they expected to say something that is interesting, original, and well written, usually (in the case of classroom assignments) about topics that they have little or no interest in.

This is a highly inflated and unrealistic expectation. I doubt that more than a few college or high school teacher really expect a high level of originality in response to classroom assignments, though that does not mean one should not try to achieve it.

A misplaced emphasis on originality creates unrealistic expectations that can cause insecure writers to plagiarize. I think that students who end up plagiarizing make the mistake of thinking that they must start by coming up with an original idea. Few people (let alone students who usually have very little writing experience) can reach such a high standard of originality. This is why they immediately hit a wall, lose a lot of time trying to get an idea, and in desperation end up plagiarizing by finding others who have said something interesting or relevant and "borrowing" their work. But since they want the reader to think that they have done the writing, they sometimes hide the borrowing by means of the 'pointless paraphrase' I wrote about previously.

Originality in ideas is often something that emerges from the writing and is not prior to the writing. A blindingly original idea may sometimes strike you, but this will be rare even for the most gifted and original writers. Instead, what you will usually find is a kind of incremental originality that emerges naturally out of the act of writing, where you are seemingly doing the mundane task of putting together a clear piece of writing using other people's (cited) ideas. If you are writing about things that interest you, then you will be surprised to find that the very act of writing brings about something original, where you discover new relationships between old ideas.

As an instructor, what I am really looking for in student writing is something that just meets the single criterion of being well written. As for being interesting, all I want is to see that at least the writer is interested in the topic, and the evidence for that takes the form of the writer making the effort to try and convince the reader of the writer's point of view. This seems like a modest goal but if followed can lead to pretty good writing.

In my experience, the most important thing is for writers to be interested enough in the topic that they want to say something about it, so the first condition for good writing is that the writer must care about the topic. The second condition is that the writer cares enough about it to want to make the reader care too. Once these two factors are in place, originality (to a greater or lesser degree) follows almost automatically from them.

It took me a long time to understand this. I had never written much in the earlier stages of my career (apart from scientific papers) because I was waiting for great new ideas to strike me, ideas that never came. But there came a time when I felt that a topic I cared a lot about (the nature of science) was one in which the point of view I held was not being articulated clearly enough by others. I began writing about it, not because I had an original idea, but because I felt a need to synthesize the ideas of many others into a simpler, more clearly articulated, position that I felt was missing from the discussion. In the process of creating that synthesis, some papers and my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs emerged. What turned out to be original (at least slightly) in them was the application of the ideas of certain classical philosophers and historians of science to the contemporary science-religion debate, something that I had not had in mind when I started writing. That feature emerged from the writing.

My second book The Achievement gap in US education: Canaries in the mine followed that same pattern. I was very concerned about what I felt were great misunderstandings about the causes of the achievement gap between black and white students in the US and how to deal with it. I felt that my experience and interests in science and education and politics and learning theory put me in a good position where I could bring ideas from these areas together. I did not have anything really original in mind when I started writing but whatever is original in the book emerged from the act of writing, the attempt to create a synthesis.

The same applies to these blog entries. I write about the things I care about, trying to make my point clear, without seeking to be original. After all, who can come up with original ideas five times per week? But very often I find that I have written things that I had not thought about prior to the writing.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Is there no end to the deception?

One of the amazing things about they current administration is how brazen they are about misleading the public. The latest is that President Bush rushed to declare that "We have found [Iraq's] weapons of mass destruction" in the form of mobile biological weapons laboratories, even while some intelligence investigators were finding that there was nothing to that charge.

The defense being offered by the administration's spokespersons that these negative findings had not reached the president makes no sense. Before making a serious charge, it is the President and his staff's responsibility to check what information is being gathered and processed. To shoot off his mouth when there was no urgency to do so is to be irresponsible at best and deceitful at worst.

Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly is maintaining a list of the more egregious examples of things the administration knew were not true or for which there were serious doubts, but went ahead and declared them as 'facts' anyway, to justify decisions that they had already made about attacking Iraq.

He is up to #8 and there is no reason to think that the list will not keep growing.

April 11, 2006

On writing-3: Why do people plagiarize?

(See part 1 and part 2 in the series.)

Just last week, it was reported that twenty one Ohio University engineering graduates had plagiarized their master's theses. Why would they do that?

I think it is rare that people deliberately set out to use other people's words and ideas while hiding the source. Timothy Noah in his Chatterbox column has a good article in Slate where he points to Harvard's guidelines to students which state that unintentional plagiarism is a frequent culprit:

Most often . . . the plagiarist has started out with good intentions but hasn't left enough time to do the reading and thinking that the assignment requires, has become desperate, and just wants the whole thing done with. At this point, in one common scenario, the student gets careless while taking notes on a source or incorporating notes into a draft, so the source's words and ideas blur into those of the student.

But lack of intent is not a valid defense against the charge of plagiarism. That has not prevented even eminent scholars like Doris Kearns Goodwin from trying to invoke it. But as Noah writes, the American Historical Association's (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians' (OAH) statement on plagiarism is quite clear on this point:

The plagiarist's standard defense-that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes-is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work. . . . Faced with charges of failing to acknowledge dependence on certain sources, a historian usually pleads that the lapse was inadvertent. This excuse will be easily disposed of if scholars take seriously the injunction to check their manuscripts against the underlying texts prior to publication.

Noah cites many authorities that say that citing the source does not always absolve you from the charge of plagiarism either.

Here's the MLA Guide:

Presenting an author's exact wording without marking it as a quotation is plagiarism, even if you cite the source [italics Chatterbox's].

Here's the AHA and the OAH:

Plagiarism includes more subtle and perhaps more pernicious abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution. Plagiarism also includes the limited borrowing, without attribution, of another person's distinctive and significant research findings, hypotheses, theories, rhetorical strategies, or interpretations, or an extended borrowing even with attribution [italics Chatterbox's].

Noah gives an example of this. In the original FDR, My Boss, the author Grace Tully writes:

Near the end of the dinner Missy arose from her chair to tell me she felt ill and very tired. I urged her to excuse herself and go upstairs to bed but she insisted she would stay until the Boss left. He did so about 9:30 and within a few minutes Missy suddenly wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.

Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book In No Ordinary Time writes:

Near the end of the dinner, Grace Tully recalled, Missy arose from her chair, saying she felt ill and very tired. Tully urged her to excuse herself and retire to her room, but she insisted on staying until the president left. He did so at 9:30 p.m. and, moments later, Missy let out a piercing scream, wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.

Is this plagiarism? After all, she cites the original author in the text itself, and the wording has been changed slightly. Yes, plagiarism has occurred says Noah, citing Harvard's guidelines:

If your own sentences follow the source so closely in idea and sentence structure that the result is really closer to quotation than to paraphrase . . .you are plagiarizing, even if you have cited the source [italics Chatterbox's].

The whole point of a paraphrase is to make a point more clearly, to emphasize or clarify something that may be hidden or obscure in the original text. Russ Hunt gives a good example of the wrongful use of the paraphrase, which he takes from Northwestern University's website The Writing Place:


But Frida's outlook was vastly different from that of the Surrealists. Her art was not the product of a disillusioned European culture searching for an escape from the limits of logic by plumbing the subconscious. Instead, her fantasy was a product of her temperament, life, and place; it was a way of coming to terms with reality, not of passing beyond reality into another realm. 
Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo(258)


As Herrera explains, Frida's surrealistic vision was unlike that of the European Surrealists. While their art grew out of their disenchantment with society and their desire to explore the subconscious mind as a refuge from rational thinking, Frida's vision was an outgrowth of her own personality and life experiences in Mexico. She used her surrealistic images to understand better her actual life, not to create a dreamworld (258).

As Hunt says:

What is clearest about this is that the writer of the second paragraph has no motive for rephrasing the passage other than to put it into different words. Had she really needed the entire passage as part of an argument or explanation she was offering, she would have been far better advised to quote it directly. The paraphrase neither clarifies nor renders newly pointed; it's merely designed to demonstrate to a sceptical reader that the writer actually understands the phrases she is using in her text.

I think that this kind of common excuse, that the authors did not know they were plagiarizing because they had used the 'pointless paraphrase' or because they cited the source, is disingenuous. While they may not have been aware that this kind of paraphrasing technically does constitute plagiarism, it is hard to imagine that the perpetrators were not aware that they were doing something wrong.

The lesson, as I see it, is to always prefer the direct quote with citation to the 'pointless paraphrase.' Changing wording here and there purely for the sake of thinking that doing so makes the passage one's own should be avoided.

POST SCRIPT: Discussing controversial ideas

Chris Weigold, who is a reader of this blog and also a Resident Assistant in one of Case's dorms, has invited me to a free-wheeling discussion about some controversial propositions that I have discussed previously in my blog as well as those that I will probably address in the future, such as:

  • Should military service be mandatory for all citizens?
  • Should everyone be required to work in a service-oriented job for two years?
  • Is torture warranted in some situations?
  • Why shouldn't Iran be allowed to become a nuclear power?
  • Should hospitals be allowed to refuse to keep a patient on life-support if the patient cannot pay?
  • Is patriotism a bad thing?
  • Are atheists more moral than religious people?
  • Why is killing innocent people in war not considered wrong?
  • If we can experiment on non-human animals, why not on humans?
  • How do people decide which religion is right?
or any other topic that people might raise.

The discussion takes place in the Clarke Tower lobby from 8:00-9:30pm on Wednesday, April 12, 2006. All are welcome.

April 05, 2006

On writing-2: Why do we cite other people's work?

In the previous post on this topic, I discussed the plagiarism case of Ben Domenech, who had lifted entire chunks of other people's writings and had passed them off as his own.

How could he have done such a thing? After all, all high school and college students get the standard lecture on plagiarism and why it is bad. And even though Domenech was home schooled, it seems unlikely that he thought this was acceptable practice. When he was confronted with his plagiarism, his defense was not one of surprise that it was considered wrong but merely that he had been 'young' when he did it or that he had got permission from the author to use their words or that the offending words had been inserted by his editors.

The cautionary lectures that students receive about plagiarism are usually cast in a moralistic way, that plagiarism is a form of stealing, that taking someone else's words or ideas without proper attribution is as morally reprehensible as taking their money.

What is often overlooked in this kind of approach is that there are many other reasons why writers and academics cite other people's works when appropriate. By focusing too much on this stealing aspect, we tend to not give students an important insight into how scholarship and research works.

Russ Hunt at St. Thomas University argues that writers cite others for a whole complex of reasons that have little to do with avoiding charges of plagiarism:

[P]ublished scholarly literature is full of examples of writers using the texts, words and ideas of others to serve their own immediate purposes. Here's an example of the way two researchers opened their discussion of the context of their work in 1984:

To say that listeners attempt to construct points is not, however, to make clear just what sort of thing a 'point' actually is. Despite recent interest in the pragmatics of oral stories (Polanyi 1979, 1982; Robinson 1981), conversations (Schank et al. 1982), and narrative discourse generally (Prince 1983), definitions of point are hard to come by. Those that do exist are usually couched in negative terms: apparently it is easier to indicate what a point is not than to be clear about what it is. Perhaps the most memorable (negative) definition of point was that of Labov (1972: 366), who observed that a narrative without one is met with the "withering" rejoinder, "So what?" (Vipond & Hunt, 1984)

It is clear here that the motives of the writers do not include prevention of charges of plagiarism; moreover, it's equally clear that they are not. . .attempting to "cite every piece of information that is not a) the result of your own research, or b) common knowledge." What they are doing is more complex. The bouquet of citations offered in this paragraph is informing the reader that the writers know, and are comfortable with, the literature their article is addressing; they are moving to place their argument in an already existing written conversation about the pragmatics of stories; they are advertising to the readers of their article, likely to be interested in psychology or literature, that there is an area of inquiry -- the sociology of discourse -- that is relevant to studies in the psychology of literature; and they are establishing a tone of comfortable authority in that conversation by the acknowledgement of Labov's contribution and by using his language --"withering" is picked out of Labov's article because it is often cited as conveying the power of pointlessness to humiliate (I believe I speak with some authority for the authors' motives, since I was one of them).

Scholars -- writers generally -- use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their alliances, they bring work to the attention of their reader, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against potential allegations of plagiarism.

The clearest difference between the way undergraduate students, writing essays, cite and quote and the way scholars do it in public is this: typically, the scholars are achieving something positive; the students are avoiding something negative. (my italics)

I think that Hunt has hit exactly the right note.

When you cite the works of others, you are strengthening your own argument because you are making them (and their allies) into your allies, and people who challenge what you say have to take on this entire army. When you cite reputable sources or credible authorities for facts or ideas, you become more credible because you are no longer alone and thus not easily dismissed, even if you personally are not famous or a recognized authority.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: It's now Daylight Saving Time. Do you know where your spiritual plane is?

It seems like idiotic statements attributing natural events to supernatural causes are not restricted to Christian radical clerics like Pat Robertson. Some Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy are challenging him for the title of Religious Doofus.

Since Sri Lanka sits very close to the equator, the length of the day is the same all year round, not requiring the 'spring-forward-fall-back' biannual adjusting of the US. Sri Lankan time used to be 5.5 hours ahead of Universal Time (UT) but in 1996 the government made a one-time shift it to 6.5 hours in order to have sunset arrive later and save energy. But the influential Buddhist clergy were not happy with the change. As a compromise, the clocks were then again adjusted to make it just 6.0 ahead of UT as a compromise. Now the government is thinking of going back to the original 5.5. hours.

Some of the country's Buddhist clergy are rejoicing at the prospect of a change because they say Sri Lanka's "old" time fitted better with their rituals.

They believe a decade living in the "wrong" time has upset the country's natural order with terrible effect.

The Venerable Gnanawimala says the change moved the country to a spiritual plane 500 miles east of where it should be.

"After this change I feel that many troubles have been caused to Sri Lanka. Tsunamis and other natural disasters have been taking place," he says.

This is what happens when you mix religion and the state. You now have to worry about what your actions are doing to the longitudinal coordinates of your nation's spiritual plane.

April 03, 2006

On writing-1: Plagiarism at the Washington Post

If you blinked a couple of weeks ago, you might have missed the meteor that was the rise and fall of the career of Ben Domenech as a blogger for

This online version of the newspaper is apparently managed independently of the print edition and has its own Executive Editor Jim Brady. For reasons that are not wholly clear, Brady decided that he needed to hire a "conservative" blogger for the website.

The problem with this rationale for the hiring was that no "liberal" counterpart blogger existed at the paper. They did have a popular blogger in Dan Froomkin, someone with a journalistic background, who wrote about politics for the Post and who had on occasion been critical of the Bush White House. As I have written earlier, Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that anything but unswavering loyalty to Bush has become the basis for identifying someone as liberal, and maybe Brady had internalized this critique, prompting him to hire someone who could be counted upon to support Bush in all his actions.

For reasons that are even more obscure, rather than choose someone who had serious journalistic credentials for this new column, Brady selected the untested 24-year old Ben Domenech. It is true that Domenech was something of a boy wonder, at least on paper. He had been home-schooled by his affluent and well-connected Republican family. He then went to William and Mary and wrote for their student newspaper The Flat Hat. He dropped out of college before graduating and co-founded a conservative website called Redstate, where he wrote under the pseudonym Augustine.

His father was a Bush political appointee and his new online column for the Washington Post (called Red America) said in its inaugural posting on March 21 that young Ben "was sworn in as the youngest political appointee of President George W. Bush. Following a year as a speechwriter for HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and two as the chief speechwriter for Texas Senator John Cornyn, Ben is now a book editor for Regnery Publishing, where he has edited multiple bestsellers and books by Michelle Malkin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Hugh Hewitt."

Not bad for a 24-year old without a college degree. And his bio lists even more accomplishments. But getting his own column in was the peak. Soon after that things started going downhill very rapidly.

His decline began when bloggers looked into his writings and found that, as Augustine, he had written a column of the day of Coretta Scott King's funeral calling her a Communist. This annoyed a lot of people who then started looking more closely at his other writings. It was then that someone discovered that he had plagiarized. And the plagiarism was not subtle. Take for example this excerpt from his review of the film Bringing out the Dead.

Instead of allowing for the incredible nuances that Cage always brings to his performances, the character of Frank sews it all up for him.

But there are those moments that allow Cage to do what he does best. When he's trying to revive Mary's father, the man's family fanned out around him in the living room in frozen semi-circle, he blurts out, "Do you have any music?"

Now compare it with an earlier review posted on,

Instead of allowing for the incredible nuance that Cage always brings to his performances, the character of Frank sews it all up for him. . . But there are those moments that allow Cage to do what he does best. When he's trying to revive Mary's father, the man's family fanned out around him in the living room in frozen semi-circle, he blurts out, "Do you have any music?"

Or this sampling from P. J. O'Rourke's book Modern Manners, which also found its way into Domenech's columns:

O'Rourke, p.176: Office Christmas parties • Wine-tasting parties • Book-publishing parties • Parties with themes, such as "Las Vegas Nite" or "Waikiki Whoopee" • Parties at which anyone is wearing a blue velvet tuxedo jacket

BenDom: Christmas parties. Wine tasting parties. Book publishing parties. Parties with themes, such as "Las Vegas Nite" or "Waikiki Whoopee." Parties at which anyone is wearing a blue velvet tuxedo jacket.

O'Rourke: It's not a real party if it doesn't end in an orgy or a food fight. • All your friends should still be there when you come to in the morning.

BenDom: It's not a real party if it doesn't end in an orgy or a food fight. All your friends should still be there when you come to in the morning.

These are not the kinds of accidental plagiarisms that anyone can fall prey to, where a turn of phrase that appealed to you when you read it a long time ago comes out of you when you are writing and you do not remember that you got it from someone else. These examples are undoubtedly deliberate cut-and-paste jobs.

Once the charges of plagiarism were seen to have some credibility, many people went to Google and the floodgates were opened, Kaloogian-style, with bloggers all over poring over his writings. Within the space of three days a torrent of further examples of plagiarism poured out. These new allegations dated back to his writings at his college newspaper and then later for National Review Online, and Domenech was found to have lifted material from Salon and even from National Review Online, the latter being the same publication for which he was writing, which adds the sin of ingratitude to the dishonesty.

On March 24, just three days after starting his Washington Post column, Ben Domenech resigned under pressure. Soon after, he also resigned as book editor at Regnery.

What can we learn from this? One lesson seemingly is that people can get away with plagiarism for a short while, especially if they are writing in obscurity for little known publications. While he was writing for his college newspaper and even for his own website, no one cared to closely look into his work. Even his future employers at did not seem to have checked him out carefully. Apparently his well-connected family and sterling Bush loyalty was enough to satisfy them that he was a good addition to their masthead.

But as soon as a writer becomes high profile, the chances are very high these days that any plagiarism will come to light.

At one level, this is a familiar cautionary tale to everyone to cite other people's work when using it. For us in the academic world, where plagiarism is a big no-no, the reasons for citing are not just there are high penalties if you get caught not doing it. The more important reasons arise from the very nature of scholarly academic activity, which I shall look at in a future posting.

To be continued. . .