Defining Plagiarism

A long holiday weekend and today was my day off to read. I finished Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Author Karen Abbott uses the stories of four women to tell the larger story of the Civil War. I was familiar with Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow, Conferederate spies, but did not know the extent of their work. I had not heard of the Northern women: Sara Emma Edmonds who served as a soldier and Elizabeth Van Lew who ran the Northern Underground from her mansion in Richmond.

The book was longer than it needed to be: Abbott provided lots of extra details about the war that only mildly touched on the four women. Some of the phrases seemed familiar to my ear: I have watched Ken Burns’ Civil War series many times since it aired. But I didn’t investigate until I finished earlier today.

It turns out that Abbott has had issues with plagiarism, forcing The New York Times to acknowledge instances in two articles she wrote for them in 2015. The charges related to several sentences that were directly copied from other sources. Abbott, according to the Times, argued that she had cited the articles at the end of the articles. The Times, however, quoted the American Historical Association’s definition of plagiarism: “Writers plagiarize, for example, when they fail to use quotation marks around borrowed material and to cite the source, use an inadequate paraphrase that makes only superficial changes to a text, or neglect to cite the source of a paraphrase.”

The Times ends the editor’s note by saying, “Had The Times known about the copied language in both essays, it would not have published them.”

The Washington Post review seems to give her a break on being lax with her quotation marks, considering the breadth of her work and her bibliography. I suppose it is possible that she simply lost track of where phrases came from.

Abbott is no shrinking violet. She responded to another Post reviews that criticized her for crossing a line from fact to invention (scroll down for her comment) with a wonderfully snarky commentary of her own and at least one editor at Melville House backs her up, suggesting the issue lies with the reviewer’s own bias.

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