Friday, June 3, 2011

Karl Polanyi and the 'too perfect paraphrase' plagiarism charge

Prompted by a seminar I attended at the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at Stellenbosch University, I read Karl Polanyi's historical-anthropological account of the economy of the kingdom of Dahomey, an African state on the Gold Coast in the 17th. and 18th. centuries that was involved in the slave trade.

Polanyi's fame does not rest on this analysis of the "archaic" economy of an African state, but on his book 'The Great Transformation' which tells the story of the profound changes that made the economies of our modern world society. And foremost, it shows clearly that capitalist economies triumphed not against state intervention but because the modern state promoted it, by all means necessary. Totalitarianism emerged out of the failure of (too) free market capitalism.

In his account of Dahomey, Polanyi relies on earlier work by Melville J. Herskovits, a founding father of American Anthropology. Entire chapters appear to be based on the latter's research. Polanyi merely stated at the beginning of the chapter that the ensuing section was based on Herskovits, and that was it. Hardly any further references to Herskovits were made in the text though we can assume that it was all based on his work. The same referencing procedure appeared in 'The Great Transformation'.

His referencing style could have cost him his job a Wits University. Or so it seems after Prof. Abebe Zegeye had been found guilty of plagiarism at an internal disciplinary hearing and dismissed. Now, I do not intend to pronounce on the Wits affair. Rather, I am interested in the charge of 'too perfect a paraphrase' which seems to suggest, according to the Mail and Guardian article, that even though you indicate the source of your text at the beginning of a paragraph or section, yet you fail to indicate at every instance that you are paraphrasing, you commit plagiarism.

This kind of plagiarism may be accidental, based on sloppy and/or insufficient referencing rather than constituting an intentional act to deceive and present someone else's work as your own. Comparing it to how Germany's former Minister of Defense, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, cut and pasted entire articles, reports, and other texts fully into his PhD thesis, without acknowledging the source, makes clear that they constitute qualitatively quite different acts of plagiarism.

Yet, based on the Wits disciplinary hearing, Polanyi would be guilty of plagiarism, and would be dismissed.

When I was an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver, every humanities and social sciences student had to take the course 'University Writing'. It was one of the toughest courses I ever took, and we were taught that every instance of using someone else's work, be it an idea or a direct quote, had to be marked clearly and we had to make reference to its "owner" at every instance.

Polanyi would not have passed this course, it seems to me.

Far from condoning plagiarism, I am asking the question what is today different from the 1930s to the 1950s, when Polanyi's work was published?

Is it that more writers resort to plagiarism? Are the lines between intentional plagiarism and accidents more blurred because of ever faster writing and reading technologies, and the sheer amount of material that is out there?

Or is it that because of the commercialization of ideas, because of intellectual and property rights, the encroachment of ownership issues and commercialization on any human activity, including thought, writing, and its dissemination, that a much more stringent regime of proper intellectual reading and writing is in effect today?