Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Another Academic Burned by Plagiarism

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2009 at 3:41 am

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a historian kvetching about his ideas being plagiarised by a Dutch journalist, only to be told that the ideas were not really his. He had compared the depression of 1897 with the present global economic crisis.

I contacted the Dutch paper. The editor in chief acknowledged that his journalist had read the article and should have credited the parts that he had used. “I cannot however but disagree with your grave accusation of plagiarism,” he said. “You may have been the first to have pointed out publicly the similarities between both crises. But Mr. De Boer rightly claims that this is not a unique achievement.”

Appropriate attribution is an important Talmudic concept. Sometimes you will have excessive attention paid to ensuring that the appropriate teacher is acknowledged for his statement, and when there is doubt about who said it, both names will be given as possibilities. A well known statement that one hears often quoted is:

“Anyone who attributes something correctly brings redemption to the world, as it is written: And Esther reported it to the king in Mordecai’s name. (Esther 2: 22)”

The Rabbis of the Talmud through close reading attribute the redemption of the Jews in The Book of Esther to the fact that when Mordecai uncovered a plot to kill the king, he reported it to Esther. Esther in turn reported it to the King, but when it was written down she made sure to attribute it to Mordecai.

One night when the king couldn’t sleep, he asked for the chronicles to be read to him where he discovered that his life had been saved by Mordecai the Jew. It was at that point that the tables turned against Haman, and the Jews were saved. If Esther had not given Mordecai the Jew, the credit then a Jew would not have been credited for saving the king.

The Maharal of Prague explains what is so redemptive about appropriate attribution.

There is a redemptive quality to the one who gives proper attribution when he quotes people. For what is that person doing? He actually does an act of redemption. For he returns the words to their rightful owner, and he takes that persons words which are now in his control and he returns them to his rightful owner by granting appropriate attribution.

The Maharal sees words and wisdom as owned by those who utter them. They are a unique property that can be used without the “owner’s” permission, but the least one can do is acknowledge the one who said it.

If you want to see how wantonly unrepentant most undergraduates are about plagiarism, click here. If you want to read the Maharal in its entirety–not long, but quite beautiful, click here.


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