Thinking thoughts

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Today’s GuardianOnline includes a possibly misleading article.  Today is 1 April*, and the article is headed :


Jane Goodall blames ‘chaotic note taking’ for plagiarism controversy
Scientist revises her book Seeds of Hope after allegations 12 sections were lifted from other websites


My first thought was of the date, April Fools’ Day.

My second thought was, “Not again?” – for I recalled that Goodall had been involved in a plagiarism controversy last year.

My third thought was the date again…

It was not an April Fools’ joke. But it wasn’t a new incident either. This was old news, revived.  The Guardian article is based on two other articles. One is the original story, which made headlines in March 2013: Jane Goodall book held back after accusations of plagiarism.  The rest of today’s story is based on Henry Nicholls’ piece in MosaicScience, also dated today, 1 April 2014, In conversation with… Jane Goodall.

Jane Goodall is a renowned, respected, almost revered, primatologist, anthropologist, UN Messenger of Peace, and much more.  Her latest book, Seeds of hope, was due to be published in August 2013. The publishers postponed publication a year ago, after a reviewer for the Washington Post noticed some similarities with other text, and in the end discovered at least 12 instances of borrowing from other sources with no acknowledgment or  attribution. Plagiarism.

Why the renewed interest today, then?  It’s because Goodall’s book, now revised, amended and all source material now credited (we hope), is also published today, 1 April.

The Guardian article is, I believe, misleading.  It tells of Goodall’s plagiarism, and it extracts portions of the conversation which Goodall had with Nicholls, for the Mosaic article.  It makes much of Goodall’s apology, and her confession of poor note-making habits.  I’ll come back to that.

To the point is that Goodall is 80 years old this week.  The Mosaic article is a celebration of her life and achievements. It is very much worth reading.  It is a long article, more than 4000 words long.   Last year’s plagiarism incident is mentioned, briefly: Nicholls spends about 300 words dealing with this, less than 8% of the full article.

That is what I think misleading about the Guardian article. The Guardian story is 100% about the incident.  Somehow, this seems out of proportion.

Two points give me food for thought.

First, Goodall’s confession, her notemaking habits. From Nicholls’ article:

Goodall accounts for these lapses by citing her hectic work schedule and her chaotic method of note-taking: “I am not methodical enough, I guess,” she says. “In some cases, you look at my notebooks, there’s no way you can tell whether this is from talking to somebody or whether it was something I read on the internet.”

I ask if there was any naivety on her part. “Yes, there must be… I have learned. In the future, I shall be more organised even if I don’t have time,” she says. “I shall certainly make sure I know who said something or what I read or where I read it.” Goodall, though, is adamant that she did not intentionally try to pass off anyone else’s words as her own. “I don’t think anybody who knows me would accuse me of deliberate plagiarism.”

“Chaotic method of note-taking”?  Verging on criminal, one might think. It’s the kind of excuse a high school student comes up with. It would seem that she has only just learned that she needs to make note of who tells her something she notes, or where she read or saw it.  That is such basic note-making strategy, one almost wonders how she has managed her illustrious career without coming a cropper sooner.

“Even if I don’t have time,” she says.  Make the time, darn it – and how much time does it take?

But the second point: is there much difference between Goodall’s offence against academic sensibilities, and, say, AEM Kheir’s (as reported in my previous blog entry)?

Not a lot.

Should all of Goodall’s previous work, and especially her work in the field, be tarnished, perhaps even made void, because of this present slip, present set of slips?

One big factor in her favour is that while her mistakes were made public, the book in which she made those mistakes was not.   Granted, she should not have made those mistakes in the first place.  Granted, she should have caught her own unattributed use of other people’s words; her editors perhaps should have caught it.  In the event, it was a reviewer who caught it.  Before publication. The humiliation would have been greater had the book gone on sale.

But if the Washington Post reviewer had kept quiet, had instead informed Goodall or her publishers and given them the chance to put things right and the story not been published, we might never have known.

I am not excusing her sloppiness, her “chaotic” habits. In fact, I am hoping that the vultures have been out, hunting in her earlier work, and have not discovered anything untoward. They usually are out, the vultures, when the mighty slip and when they fall.

I think of Dorothy Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Jonah Lehrer, other serial plagiarists. I note remarks made by David Plotz in a piece for Slate, Why Stephen Ambrose’s plagiarism matters.

Ambrose’s assertion that he’s not a thief is ludicrous. One plagiarism is careless. Two is a pattern. Four, five, or more is pathology. You can bet that historians jealous of Ambrose (that is, all historians) are this minute combing the rest of his corpus for more evidence of sticky fingers.

Goodall is not claiming innocence, other than in her sloppy note-making habits. She has been careless. She has attempted to put things right. This is the one incident we know of. She is not a serial plagiarist. Her reputation was not, as far as we know, built on the back of forged credentials…

So, thank you, the Guardian, for reminding us of the incident, for reminding us that Goodall is human. But I still think it misleading at this time to remind us only of this incident.  I think Goodall was lucky, in that the book was amended before it was published.  I think it’s a warning for us all.

I think she deserves better than the Guardian gave her. I think Mosaic got it right. Goodall’s frailty is not forgotten. There is much else to celebrate.

But still…  We have, certainly I have, a lot to think about.

Happy birthday, Jane Goodall. Congratulations. I think.

*  It was 1 April as I began writing this piece.

One thought on “Thinking thoughts

  1. Pingback: A Matter of Definition | Honesty, honestly…

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