Plagiarism, Jane Goodall, and The Truth

The Washington Post recently exposed passages in Jane Goodall’s latest book about plants, Seeds of Hope, as plagiarized. To academia’s horror the world over, no doubt, Goodall’s source material includes such pedestrian sources as Wikipedia and the Choice Organic Tea website. Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist and chimpanzee activist, quickly responded to the plagiarism critiques, claiming that duplicated passages were an honest mistake and that she would properly cite them in future editions. Goodall’s actions are – or are they? – a far cry from the more serious offences of New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who, among other infractions, invented Bob Dylan quotes for his examination of the neuroscience behind creativity in his book Imagine, or the New York Times writer Jayson Blair who, back in 2003, tarred the reputation of one of the most highly esteemed newspapers in the world with fabricated interview quotes and unattributed sources.

This reminds me of an episode of the radio show This American Life that truly moved me – and a large number of other listeners – when I first heard it late last year. Raconteur Mike Daisey performed excerpts from his monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in which he reported on the working conditions at the Foxconn electronics factory in Shenzen, China. Initially labelling his work nonfiction, Mike Daisey later clarified that he had taken certain factual liberties for the sake of his art, but that the overall story was true. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, ended up retracting the piece, grilling Mike Daisey in a follow-up interview for misrepresenting the facts, and apologizing to listeners for failing to catch the errors before the show was aired.

I remember, at the time, feeling torn about the whole thing: one the one hand, I felt betrayed and misled and as outraged as Ira was during his subsequent cross-examination of Daisey, and on the other, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Mike Daisey’s situation. As a writer myself, and a lover of fiction and nonfiction alike, as someone who has taken a journalism class or two in my student days, I can understand the drive to be true to one’s story, even if the facts aren’t quite all there. Nonfiction, I like to tell my friends, is about facts; fiction is about truth. If your story has integrity, holds together, and touches an underlying emotional truth, it can be every bit as meaningful, if not more so, than a dry piece of journalism spouting facts alone.

But where Mike Daisey erred, was in the labelling of his piece. He called it nonfiction, and so, when he reported on conversations as if they were first-person testimonies, he had an obligation to the truth – and to the facts. It’s a fine line to walk: attracting an audience who is interested in the facts about working conditions in a Foxconn factory, and yet doing so in a way that is as emotionally evocative and spell-binding as the very best works of fiction. Mike Daisey tried – and failed – to walk it successfully. But did he lie with malicious intent? I don’t think so.

Jane Goodall is no Mike Daisey. No one is arguing that the facts she borrowed from other sources are outrageously incorrect. Having not read her book I rely on other sources, but it appears the plagiarized sentences are mainly exposition, the backdrop upon which her main narrative rests. If that’s the case, hers were errors in rigour, attention and scrutiny in filling in those expository gaps. The misquotes, too, are more the result of sloppy memory and lazy writing than of wilfully misleading her readers. And for that, I’m sure, she’ll eventually be forgiven.

The larger question, about the line between fact and fiction and what to do when it blurs, is more interesting. In a tech-riddled world where crowd-sourcing, mashups and cutting and pasting are as easy as pressing a button or searching a browser in the comfort of one’s home, perhaps we are seeing the inklings of the next literary frontier: books that no longer seek to be original in terms of word choice, sentences or even paragraphs, but that proudly straddle the line between original and recycled content, where the author is less a writer than a collage artist of facts and truths.

Or maybe, our technologically-addicted digits just need to learn to pause a few beats longer before we press send to our publishers and our audiences. Jane Goodall, I’m looking at you.


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