Witch hunt for plagiarism

While I have had a long and unpleasant relationship with plagiarizers — business school students do it in epidemic numbers — I’m still balanced enough to recognize that some things that look like plagiarism aren’t.

Case in point, the NY Times has a piece today about a new book, “Pandora’s Keepers“, about the nine men behind the atomic bomb. While the book is apparently a decent one, there are allegations emerging that the author lifted at least 33 passages from other works.

Here is an example. In the aforementioned book the following passage occurs:

 “In a moody and rambling talk he confessed that he had failed to control the weapon he had helped create.”

The same passage appears, short one “had”, in another book, “Genius in the Shadows”. Fair enough, the author of Pandora’s Keepers lifted the passage, whether accidentally or not.

But the Times article goes on to point out other passages, implying rampant plagiarism, rather than one accidental lift. But the case is much less clear-cut.

For example, here is one passage cited:

“Oppenheimer and Teller eyed each other warily, while the object of their unstated but unmistakable competition sat silently between them.”

The Times compares this to the following passage from another book that mentions the same encounter:

“Teller and Oppenheimer eyed each other like rival suitors, while the object of their attention sat silent between them.”

Sure, the two passages have some superficial similarities — their use of the same awkward “suitor” metaphor, the same eyeing of one another. But is it really that clear to anyone, other than a post-Jayson Blair New York Times, that this is authorial malfeasance? I just don’t buy it — yet.