Please see updates at the bottom.
No allegation does as much damage to a writer than plagiarism, or to an academic either. That became clear in the aftermath of a CNN probe into Monica Crowley, who is both writer and academic as well as being at the time under consideration for a position in the Trump administration. CNN accused Crowley of plagiarism in both her book What the (Bleep) Just Happened and in her doctoral thesis at Columbia. The sensational charges resulted in Crowley’s withdrawal from consideration from the job.
But were those allegations legitimate? One of the supposed victims of this plagiarism, National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, argues that CNN conducted a political hit job on Crowley — and he has some solid evidence for that charge [see updates below]:
All writers make mistakes. But Monica’s have been blown wildly out of proportion, to the point of smear. The well-regarded copyright attorney Lynn Chu has done a careful study of the plagiarism allegations and posted her findings on Facebook. Two things leap out.
The first is context. Readers were presented with a series of passages in which Monica is shown to have relied on the work of other writers (including yours truly) in two of her most notable written works: a bestselling 2012 book called What the (Bleep) Just Happened?: The Happy Warrior’s Guide to the Great American Comeback; and her 17-year-old Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, “Clearer than Truth”: Determining and Preserving Grand Strategy. The Evolution of American Policy Toward the People’s Republic of China Under Truman and Nixon. What was not well explained to readers is that the cited passages constitute a bare fraction of what Ms. Chu correctly describes as “long, heavily researched, synthetic work[s]” – 361 pages in the case of the book, 461 pages in the dissertation, both heavily footnoted.
Secondly, about those footnotes: According to Ms. Chu, CNN itemized 37 passages out of the 461 dissertation pages as improperly mined from the work of others without sourcing; but 26 of these items were “straightforwardly false” because, in order to make Monica look like a plagiarist, CNN omitted her footnotes.
Taking out the footnotes to make that argument is deceptive, if that’s what happened. According to Chu’s letter on her Facebook page, what’s left after that isn’t much at all:
In my review, Ms. Crowley erred in 4 out of 61 items cited from the book, and 9 out of the 37 passages cited from the dissertation. Two other items from the dissertation required rephrasing, but not source citation, in my opinion. Nearly all of the questioned passages were short in themselves. …
The match often seemed computer-generated from shared proper names and generic phrases, or news and anecdotes repeated by aggregators and editorialists. This type of material is generally considered fair use and/or public domain. As a result, this CNN list was misleadingly long, possibly a calculated attempt to condemn her with manufactured, but false, bulk. …
Overall the corrections were few and minor. The instances I felt should be corrected were within the normal range of typical errors. Any long, heavily researched, synthetic work (361 pages for the book, 461 pages for the dissertation) will contain a few errors in sourcing or underparaphrasing. Computer cut and paste increases the overall likelihood of occurrences of improperly unaltered copying.
The term “plagiarism” should not be used until errors reach a critical mass. … The relatively few examples of unsourced copying found was in my opinion de minimus, should just be corrected, and not allowed to besmirch Ms. Crowley’s reputation.
It’s tough to argue against Andrew’s conclusion that CNN’s omission of the fact that those 26 instances they cited were in fact already footnoted is “shameful” indeed, if that’s indeed what happened. However …see updates below.
Update: Andrew Kaczynski disputes Chu and McCarthy:
Update: Another Twitter user has a good question:
I'm confused. Is Chu's argument that direct copying is OK if you footnote it? Seems like unusual interpretation.
— Elisabeth (@septembergrrl) February 3, 2017
My understanding is that footnotes are to source reworded material; quote marks are for what Crowley was doing.
— Elisabeth (@septembergrrl) February 3, 2017
I’d say that she’s arguing that having a citation on the material makes it clear it came from another source. Paraphrasing would be acceptable (and wouldn’t need quotes), but should be kept to a minimum. That’s not plagiarism, although it may not be very good sourcing practice.
Update: Another Twitter user noted that at least some universities might classify excessive paraphrasing as plagiarism:
— Grimm (@grimlyspoken) February 3, 2017
Update: If CNN did remove the citations on some of these passages, that’s still a problem. But I think the points raised on Twitter about the issues in Chu’s analysis are valid, too. I’ve edited the post substantially after a number of off-line conversations to pull back on my own conclusions. We don’t generally memory-hole posts, so it’ll stay up with the links to Chu and McCarthy. Clearly, McCarthy still doesn’t feel victimized by what Crowley did. Thanks to Andrew Kaczynski for being very responsive very late at night on these questions.
Update, 2/3 7:34 am: Andrew McCarthy was kind enough to respond to my questions about Chu’s analysis and the updates:
Note that Chu’s report concedes that paraphrasing can be plagiarism if it is excessive, and that mistakes were made that need rephrasing. Her main contentions are that footnoting was dropped, that CNN made the offense look worse than it was, and that Monica should not be professionally destroyed by this. I added that writers hold writers to a higher standard than the law does – i.e., it’s fair to fault failures to source even if they don’t amount to legal plagiarism. As for the political aspect, Monica’s work has been out there for many years – in the case of the dissertation, 17 years – but this reporting did not happen until after she went to work for Trump.
That is all I can say beyond the fact that Monica is my friend (as I disclosed and as CNN reported earlier), she has already suffered mightily for this, and, you are right, I don’t feel victimized by what happened – and I want her to be able to go on with her career.