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The art of plagiarism

Zygmunt Bauman has been accused of ‘self-plagiarism’. Is it really a problem that the prominent sociologist has repeated passages across the many books he has published since retirement?

Zygmunt Bauman. Wikimedia Commons/Forumlitfest. Some rights reserved. Zygmunt Bauman. Wikimedia Commons/Forumlitfest. Some rights reserved.“Eminent sociologist has recycled 90,000 words of material across a dozen books, claims paper” – thus the Times Higher Education on 20 August. A newly published paper by two scholars from Cambridge University has demonstrated that Zygmunt Bauman, a prominent sociologist and theorist of modernity, has reused significant quantities of material from his own published works – extracts sometimes many thousands of words long – in the many books he has published since his retirement.

At bottom the concern in this particular case seems to be with originality, the fact that Bauman’s repeated material is not ‘new’. This is a sin against capitalism, one of whose doctrines is that there must always be new things to sell so that the consumer can buy with confidence. Therefore, as the THE reports Bauman’s critics to say, “by failing to indicate that substantial parts of his newly authored works are not in fact new, in any conventional sense of the term, but are instead copied from his earlier works, Bauman deceives his readers”. The key question is therefore whether Bauman is properly exercising the responsibility he has to his publishers/distributors and readers/consumers in respect of his intellectual property. The dark suspicion is that he’s ‘plagiarizing’ himself.

Music, my own field, has a long history of what today’s capitalist legal lexicon calls ‘plagiarism’ but which used to be called ‘borrowing’. The difference in terminology adverts to an important shift between two conceptions of property. The first conception is a (never realized) ideal that ideas, including intellectual or artistic ones, are held in common, or at least could pass between people without lawsuits. This is what happens when a friend lets me ‘borrow’ a book: even though I’ve sometimes taken years to return them, no friend has (yet) sued me over it. The second conception – the one we have now – is one in which ideas, including intellectual or artistic ones, are privately owned and traded.

Machaut receiving Nature. Wikimedia Commons/Parisian manuscript, 1350s. Public Domain. Machaut receiving Nature. Wikimedia Commons/Parisian manuscript, 1350s. Public Domain.To the medieval mind our conception would seem crazy. Melismas and tropes were added to Gregorian chants from the ninth century onwards; in the fourteenth century Machaut was happy to borrow entire motet structures from Philippe de Vitry, who couldn’t have cared less; and even in the Baroque, composers were very happy to reuse entire movements or even pieces. Some of these were self-borrowings: if you feel you’ve heard chunks of Handel’s Messiah in his other works, you’re not wrong. But many were even from other composers. Listeners from the eighteenth century to the present have been free to decide whether they prefer Vivaldi’s op. 3, no. 10 or Bach’s BWV 1065, which reworks it, without the preference having to be troubled by any technical questions of legality. But this last kind of musical borrowing in particular seems at odds with our expectations of the behaviour of creative artists, journalists, or scholars (though, interestingly, not politicians, who are very happy to recycle other people’s ideas, and even graceless catchphrases, as their own). And that is because we have been constructed by our history.

The development of capitalism was accompanied by the emergence of the modern author figure. The notion of copyright, which could be used to police the new situation of ownership, was first established in 1710 by the Statute of Anne, and by 1769 (its first recorded use cited in the OED) people were speaking of ‘intellectual property’ in the way we do today. It was thus before the reach of collective memory that western capitalist society began to prize originality, innovation, and authorial ownership for its monetizable value – a value which has very frequently been extracted from the creator by a publisher/distributor’s more or less exploitative terms. But, although we might have forgotten the constructed nature of this ‘perfectly normal’ belief about ownership, it is nevertheless a historical creation, and not a terribly old one at that – we are, after all, still listening to music and watching plays that were written by people who might very possibly think we are mad to think of authorship the way we do.

In today’s academic world, from which this story has emerged, there are signs that individuals and even governments want to take a step back towards greater public ownership of knowledge, specifically through open access publishing. But we are not entering a new utopia of common ownership. The current models for making open-access publishing possible are ultimately designed to ensure continued solid profit for publishers at taxpayers’ expense. And universities (by which I mean their virtually autocratic rulers, the vice chancellors), are actually conflicted on the issue. They want to pursue open-access policies so that they can demonstrate their moral uprightness in making freely available to the public research that the public has paid for. But at the same time universities each claim intellectual property rights in the work of their salaried academics and are resistant to losing those rights, since from time to time they can make a bit of money out of them. (I suppose one should admire the strength of vice chancellors for being able to get out of bed and face the day when their minds are such a terrifying mix of irreconcilable contradictions.)

So what are we to make of Professor Bauman? He has been writing around two books a year since he retired in 1990. Only a grotesquely vain person would expect any reader to keep up with such a prodigious outpouring. Realistically, most of his readers will read only a handful of his books, and those not cover-to-cover (although some academics write beautifully, their books aren’t widely held to be compelling page-turners that readers consume in a hungry literary frenzy). And in that case, each of his books is written for a different audience. Is it really such a problem, therefore, that he repeats passages, even extensive ones?

Slavoj Zizek. Wikimedia Commons/Andy Miah. Some rights reserved. Slavoj Zizek. Wikimedia Commons/Andy Miah. Some rights reserved.Nobody objects if Delia Smith repeats her hard-boiled egg recipe in three different books, because it’s reasonable of her to expect that most people will only buy one of her books, and yet all her readers want her hard-boiled egg recipe. Why should it be different for academics? Another prolific author, Slavoj Žižek, is famous for his self-borrowing. In a review of two books, Terry Eagleton humorously observed that “Whole chunks of Absolute Recoil reappear in Trouble in Paradise, and whole chunks of Trouble in Paradise appear twice over. He has now told the same jokes, recycled the same insights and recounted the same anecdotes dozens of times over…No doubt we shall have a chance to read some of this again in his next few books.”

Anyone who reads all 47 of Bauman’s post-1990 books and finds, say, eight repetitions of important material, will probably just skip over it on readings two to eight; on the other hand, readers of just one or two books will be in the fortunate position of having important insights repeated, and will not lose out. It is not clear who really loses out here. Personally, I hope that Bauman lives to write another 47 books, two thirds of which are three-quarters full of self-borrowings. The joyful reuse of ideas might encourage his readers to do the same – and to spread his wisdom widely for the benefit of society.

This piece is reposted from the author’s blog, with his permission.

About the author

J. P. E. Harper-Scott is Professor of Music History and Theory at Royal Holloway, University of London. He tweets @quiltingpoint.

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