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If an entire article in Computational Statistics and Data Analysis were put together from other, unacknowledged, sources, would that be a work of art?

Spy novelist Jeremy Duns tells the amazing story of Quentin Rowan, a young writer who based an entire career on patching together stories based on uncredited material from published authors, culminating in a patchwork job that Duns had blurbed as an “instant classic.”

Rowan did not merely plagiarize to fill in some gaps or cover some technical material that he was too lazy to rewrite; rather, he put together an entire novel out of others’ material. Rowan writes (as part of a longer passage that itself appears to be dishonest; see the November 15, 2011 5:36 AM comment later on in the thread):

I [Rowan] sat there with the books [by others] on my kitchen table and typed the passages up word for word. I had a plot in mind, initially, and looked for passages that would work within that context. People told me the initial plot was dull (spies being killed all over Europe – no one knows why), so I changed it to be more like the premise of McCarry’s “Second Sight” which was a whole lot more interesting. I had certain things I wanted to see happen in the initial plot: a double cross, a drive through the South of France, a raid on a snowy satellite base. Eventually I found passages that adhered to these kinds of scenes that only meant changing the plot a little bit here and there. It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together. Every new passage added has its own peculiar set of edges that had to find a way in.

The problem is not that he cut and pasted but that he didn’t acknowledge the sources. Although if he’d done that, he might’ve been up against some copyright infringement problems.

A commenter writes:

The whole thing about this that is so sad is that, yes, writing is hard work, and sending your words into the world to be read and judged is hard. But writing also brings me great joy and satisfaction. And that joy is what Quentin has cheated himself out of because he was scared.

I don’t know about that. Putting together an entire novel out of existing scraps and pieces—that’s pretty impressive to me. Quilting may be less technically impressive than weaving but it’s a skill all its own. Similarly, rappers have stolen lots of 70s riffs but they’ve added something of their own.

Literary vs. academic theft

The commenters also discuss other literary plagiarists such as Jacob Epstein, Patricia Waddell, Richard Condon, and Jerzy Kosinski.

Based on all these examples, literary plagiarism seems a bit different than academic plagiarism. (And both are different from journalists who take from blogs without giving credit.)

Goodwin, Fischer, Wegman, Tribe, Ayres, Dershowitz, etc etc etc are doing just fine in their careers. They don’t need to plagiarize; they seem to do it out of a sense of obligation, or because they’re too lazy to figure things out themselves. (Or maybe for one of these reasons.) It’s less effort to copy than to fully read external material, incorporate it into one’s worldview, and rewrite it in a way that is coherent with one’s larger argument.

In contrast, for literary plagiarists there is skill involved in patching together complementary material from others’ published work, seeking passages that are obscure enough or bland enough to escape notice. I don’t think that even Ed Wegman’s strongest defenders would argue that he applied any wit or creativity in his ripoffs of Wikipedia and other published sources. But I think you can admire the skill (if not the dishonesty) of a literary copyist who can put together a whole novel out of others’ material.

Getting energy from the reader

I also liked this comment, later on in the thread:

Books contain energy, and when you purposefully use words found in other books, you pull that energy into your own work.

I [the commenter] think the energy comes from the author, and all her experiences and deliberations, but also it comes from the people working on the book: editors, artists, marketing, etc. I’d go so far as to say that people reading and responding to books can contribute to their energy as well.

Interesting point. I believe the reader can supply a lot, and some books stimulate this by having lots of hooks, as it were, to connect to the readers’ thoughts and experiences. Think of all those memoirs that work by reminding readers of their own childhoods. Or consider Nassim Taleb’s books. Many of my correspondents were surprised that I responded so positively to Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, but I really enjoyed the experience of reading them with pen in hand, it was just the right book to bring out lots of thoughts that I had within myself.

15 Comments

  1. Xi'an says:

    I think there is art in this attempt. Maybe he should have quoted the sources… Had the amount be limited for each piece of work, he would not have infringed copyright law. (I became aware of the issue when I only quoted from the Wheel of Time for Bayesian Choice!) The ultimate success is Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote!

    • Andrew says:

      X:

      I assume you’re talking about Quentin Rowan and not the author (or perhaps I should say “compiler”) of the Computational Statistics and Data Analysis article? If that latter piece is art, it is only so in the form of performance art!

  2. Erin Jonaitis says:

    Interesting post. I agree, this qualifies as art (and I like the comparison to quilting). I used to be much more bothered by “borrowing” in music before I realized that it’s been going on for centuries. Pop songs used to get borrowed and turned into masses (and of course the elders complained then too).

    I found The Black Swan difficult. I wanted to like it, I find the topic interesting, and I think there’s value in his perspective, but the smug self-aggrandizement was just such a turnoff that I couldn’t think about anything else. I’m impressed by people who have the strength of mind to see through a writer’s personal flaws and enjoy the good ideas beneath, but I’m not always one of them, alas.

    • Manuel Moe G says:

      Yeah, like Andrew I read it making notes in the margins, and raiding the bibliography to look at the source materials myself. Would like to get my copy signed by the man – would not enjoy a long car drive with the man. I wish Talib would write a biography of Mandelbrot. The very best French mathematicians grab onto something interesting but awkward and seemingly intractable, that other mathematicians are willing to sweep under the carpet, and attack it with the tenacity of an English ( ;-) ) bulldog. Mandelbrot was such a mathematician.

  3. Tom says:

    My question – if different sets of researchers were to use the same set of source articles would it be possible to get resulting articles with opposing conclusions?

  4. K? O'Rourke says:

    JG Gardin did the opposite and surprised almost every one.

    Basically it looked like this – discern an authors _logical_ process in writing articles and put into computer code (one example was Levi-Strauss).

    Train up a young graduate student on using the program and give them a set of “observations”.

    Take that student’s _paper_ to the author and ask them if they wrote the paper.

    In the Levi-Strauss example they said “Yes, but I have seemed to have misplaced all my copies – can I keep this one?”

    But the point is that is unlikely that the same sets of inputs given independently to two authors will result in the same _scholarly_ paper.

    Hence the exception leading to a strong suspicion.

  5. numeric says:

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and what is more sincere than copying another’s work verbatim? Incidentally, I stole that from someone, but for the life of me I can’t remember who. Maybe myself! I’m sure I’ll believe that in a few years (or months, or days, or minutes, or seconds…)

  6. John Mashey says:

    But the title is wrong. I don’t know of any articles in CSDA constructed almost entirely from other unacknowledged sources.
    I think you were thinking of Wiley WIREs:CS, where there seem to be at least 2 such. The CSDA one only had about a page of such.

  7. Mark Palko says:

    Immature artists imitate;

    mature artists steal.

  8. kjetil halvorsen says:

    I never understood why so many statisticians seems to dislike the Black Swan. While much in it seems obvious to us, it is not so to everybody else, and he certaily does a very good job of teaching this stuff! Also, it does contain much stuff
    not at all so common knowledge, like the connection to ancient sceptical philosphy which I found interesting!

    He discusses Rumsfeltds famous “unknown knowns” talk. That so many journalist laughed of Rumsfeldt only shows the depth of their stupidity. One commenter on Rumsfeldt I founs by chance, Slavoj Ẑiẑek, had a very interesting observation, although finally he misunderstood it itself. (Slavoj Ẑiẑek is a famous, at least in some circles, european philosopher. There even exists a journal entirely dedicated to discussing his ideas! I dont really like him, but he is a good observer). His observation on Rumsfeldt can be seen in a youtube video (around the start of part 2, if my memorry is not too wrong),
    Slavoj Ẑiẑek: Why only an atheist can believe. He observes that Rumsfeldt forgets the fourth category: The unknown knowns! The things we know about whitout knowing that we know. ¿What are they? He continues to identify that with “Ideology” which I think is wrong, one knows ones ideology but maybe not all its implication. A better identification is
    our culturaL knowledge, all we take as a given because in our culture it is given.. Only by meeting other cultures we get to know that ain’t so, and that is called “cultural schock”

  9. Rick Wicklin says:

    To answer the question in your title, yes, it could classify as a work of art, but not as a work of scholarly research. Publish it in an art journal, but not in a schoilarly journal.

    I guess the collage is the ultimate medium for borrowing from others, since it is literally composed of others’ works.
    Some might argue that if the work is famous enough, then there is no need to acknowledge it. I have seen many instances of the Mona Lisa, American Gothic, Whistler’s Mother, Starry Night, and other famous works “borrowed” into pop art, movies, and Far Side cartoons. I don’t think I ever saw a Gary Larson footnote with a reference to the original artist.

  10. kjetil halvorsen says:

    The norwegian newspaper aftenposten tells this story
    http://www.aftenposten.no/jobb/Foreleser-kopierte-teksten-til-student-6763627.html#.Tz1xce7DulA

    An associate professor at the humanities faculty
    plagiarized, in a published paper, from a student paper!

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