Quackery & Straws

As Edgar Allen Poe, wrote in The Literati of 1850:

“There are very few points of classical scholarship which are not the common property of “the learned” … and in composing any book of reference recourse is unscrupulously and even necessarily had in all cases to similar books which have preceded… it is the practice of quacks to paraphrase page after page … preserving the spirit of the whole, its information…, while everything is so completely re-written as to leave no room for a direct charge of plagiarism…. he who, in availing himself of the labors of his predecessors (and it is clear that all scholars must …) who shall copy verbatim the passages to be desired… even if he fail to make direct acknowledgment of indebtedness — is unquestionably less of the plagiarist than the disingenuous and contemptible quack who wriggles himself, as above…”

As Poe noted “the design in any such compilation is … to make a useful school-book or book of reference” and, of the author, “the public, of course, [are] never caring a straw whether he be original.” The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [IEP] is an incredibly useful ‘book of reference’ for the modern age and most of its articles are original contributions by specialized philosophers. It is however acknowledged on the site’s ‘About’ page, “that there are temporary or ‘proto articles’” that “have largely been adapted from older sources.” I was unaware the site had recycled public domain material in this way when I chanced upon an entry on ‘The Academy’ by an ‘anonymous author.’ Something just struck me as odd, there was a reference to “the distinction laid down by Diogenes, and alluded to above” but no such allusion and then there were certain rather dated turns of phrase. And I got to wondering whether the material had been elsewhere before it went online as a ‘temporary’ IEP article in 2001.

The IEP entry is composed of two parts: the main section and a short piece titled ‘views of the New Academy’. Upon a little investigation it appeared that this second section is pretty much identical with an article on the ‘New Academy’ found in Harper’s dictionary of classical literature and antiquities’ of 1896 as edited by one Harry Thurston Peck,. And I found a suitably placed reference to Diogenes Laertius and his threefold division of the Academy, and a very close match to the rest of IEP entry in Charles Anthon’s 1842 ‘Classical Dictionary.’ and his 1833 edition of John Lemprière’s ‘Bibliothecca Classica’ (from whose revision his own Dictionary evolved). Now, I know the IEP is a not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers whose very admirable goal is the sharing of knowledge. And I know that, legally, you can do what you please with public domain works. But, I must admit the question did occur: why would you copy, pretty much verbatim, from other people’s work and not say where you copied it from? If the IEP entry is accurate then the student will, quite reasonably, not care a straw that it is stitched together from two articles published in the 19th century. And it would have been quite absurd for some ‘quack’ to have completely re-written the material just so its origins couldn’t be traced. But it seems quite simple to state in online article X that the same incorporates text from public domain sources Y and Z. And what occurred to me was just that is was, well, ‘bad form’ to help your self to the work of others and give them no credit for their labours even if they are dead.

But then, as some research revealed, ‘recycling’ material, as the quotation from Poe suggests, is nothing new. Peck’s Dictionary lifts its article on ‘Academia’ straight from Anthon too (it is also missing an allusion to Diogenes, but as the IEP includes a line straight from Anthon not found in Harpers one presumes the IEP researcher was working from both). O.M. Fernald, reviewing Peck’s Dictionary for The American Journal of Philology back in 1897, said “it is not possible within these limits to review half a dozen important works of reference [and] that is what an adequate review of this volume would mean” and he has some harsh criticisms to make about Peck’s willingness to help himself to the work of living authors simply because copyright laws fail to prohibit it. Still, Peck at least acknowledges that “when material was, in its original form, precisely suited to his purpose, he incorporated it without a change … [that] the greater part of his work was compilation rather than original exposition, [and]… if the completed work be found of service to the student of the classics, this result must be very largely due to the original sources whence so great a portion of the Dictionary is derived.” This is rather more than can be said for Charles Anthon. As is noted by The North American Review in 1842: “One would infer, from the way in which [Anthon] speaks of his labours in the preface, that the articles had all been written by himself. This is very far from the case. Many, if not all the most important, are taken, – not merely compiled, but taken, in their very words, from other writers. Here and there a sentence is omitted, the arrangement slightly altered, or a phrase changed, for the purpose of interweaving a paragraph drawn from some other source. The references to the original authorities are also copied, apparently without verification … the book is any thing but a homogenous whole., it is diversified by styles as numerous as the authors in Dr Anthon’s Library…” And indeed it was this very controversy about plagiarism that prompted Poe to write in Anthon’s defence as above.

Anthon’s entry on ‘Academia’ at least is not, it seems, taken whole and direct from anything else. Still it appears The history of philosophy: from the earliest times to the beginning of the present century; drawn up from Brucker’s Historia critica philosophiaeby William Enfield (1791) was one of the books on Anthon’s bookshelves. There remain a few turns of phrase – about “those followers of Plato, who taught the doctrine of their master without mixture or corruption” and those “which in some measure receded from the Platonic system without entirely deserting it” - that have dropped through time from a book published in 1791, via a number of learned hands, into a ‘temporary’ article published online in 2001.

Personally, I rather hope they don’t get round to replacing it.

  1. Goodness. Thanks for this Jim.

    I hope they do replace it, and quickly, so as to avoid embarrassment. The harm of plagiarism is not visited upon the dead. Contemporary scholars are the ones who are harmed. We have the right to check the original sources, to see the words in their original context, to give credit (and blame) where it is due and withholding it where it is not.

  2. The IEP 2001:

    “The work of Diogenes is a crude contribution towards the history of philosophy. It contains a brief account of the lives, doctrines, and sayings of most persons who have been called philosophers; and though the author is limited in his philosophical abilities and assessment of the various schools, the book is valuable as a collection of facts, which we could not have learned from any other source, and is entertaining as a sort of pot-pourri on the subject.

    The Penny cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain) Volume 8, Page 506 1837:

    “The work by which Diogenes is known IS a crude contribution towards the history of philosophy It contains a brief account of the lives, doctrines, aaJ sayings of most persons who had been called philosophers: and though the author is evidently a most unfit person 6r the task which he imposed upon himself, and has shown very little judgment and discrimination in the execution, the book is useful as a collection of facts which we could not otherwise have learned, and entertaining as a sort •’ omniana on the subject.

    Hi Benjamin,

    As you may recall I referenced the IEP entry on an article I wrote a good while ago, interestingly it includes the apparently original lines: “Diogenes is generally as reliable as whatever source he happens to be copying from at that moment.” This does seem rather ironic.

    When I first clicked onto the way the Academy piece is stitched together I did rather think of it as the dead being wronged. As the story emerged – though I would have liked to found some space to speak about all the good both Anthon and Peck did – in this case it seemed sort of apt in a way. But yes there is the whole thing about attribution allowing scholars to check sources and gauge how reliable the material is likely to be.
    I see no good reason why the IEP should have not referenced these works (or whatever intermediate works this stuff was lifted from) at the time. Wikipeadia attributes its pubic domain sources now, and as an endeavour led by scholars really the IEP should have been doing this 10 years ago. Of course they can’t go through all these ‘anonymous’ pieces giving the names of the authors now. Slowly they will replace them I guess. I don’t want to be too hard on people for mistakes made a good few years during a worthy project .. that wouldn’t be like me at all…

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