Times' Stanley Fish: Plagiarism and the Rules of Golf

We like Stanley Fish because of his sometimes strange analogies. In his current Times column, Fish compares the rules governing plagiarism with the rules governing golf. We do get it, we like it and we think it makes some sense. The problem is that most people who don't play golf won't understand what he is talking about and his analogy won't advance insights into the violation that we call "plagiarism" and the actionable tort that we call "copyright violation."

Fish proclaims what we already know by looking around at what goes on in the world, "Plagiarism is not a big moral deal." Let's see what Fish says about golf and plagiarism:
Golf’s rules have been called arcane and it is not unusual to see play stopped while a P.G.A. official arrives with rule book in hand and pronounces in the manner of an I.R.S. official. Both fans and players are aware of how peculiar and “in-house” the rules are; knowledge of them is what links the members of a small community, and those outside the community (most people in the world) can be excused if they just don’t see what the fuss is about.

Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession. If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no.
We need to add a bit of Talmudic insight to what Fish says. In golf, if you violate the rules, there are penalties. A stroke or two can be added to your score for each violation. You can be disqualified from a competition or thrown off the tour if you commit a serious enough breach.

Let's say for a minute that we like to think of golf as a sort-of religion. And guess what? Golfers we play with do not observe the rules according to ultra-Orthodox standards. They know you can't take a do-over shot by the rule book. But many of us take "mulligans" usually setting our own accepted standards and trying to stick to them. One mulligan on the front nine and one on the back nine. And who has not joked about using their foot-wedge to advance the ball out of the rough?

Fish might have tried a religion analogy to explain what governs academic life. Originality is kosher and plagiarism is treif. Some folks who say they are religious, surreptitiously eat treif. Some golfers move the ball to improve their lies and save some strokes when they are out of the sight of their playing partners. Some scholars take shortcuts to enhance their reputations, put their name on the work of others to increase their output and pump up their CVs.

But at the end of the day plagiarism is not truly comparable to cheating at golf or to eating a cheeseburger. Unless you are playing for money, golf is a gentleman's (and gentlewoman's) game where you keep your own score, a competition where you are not taking the property of others if you enhance your own performance with a pencil on the scorecard. Do that and you are a cheater in the sport, a moral deal only if sportsmanship matters to you and your friends.

Religion in America is a personal calling. Unless you bring the ham into your house and desecrate your cookware, when you eat a pork sausage, you satisfy your appetite but take nothing of value from the pockets of your friends. You are a sinner within that system, and it is a moral deal on your Rosh Hashanah scorecard.

And then we come to scholarship which is both a calling and a competition. Cheaters violate their own standards and the standards of others. That's a moral deal on both levels. And of course there is that money that the plagiarizing cheater puts in his pocket, earned out of the intellectual property of others. "Not a big moral deal," insists Fish.

Fish says, "Plagiarism is breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe." But Stanley. It is obviously a theft of property and that is in the Ten Commandments. So maybe you mean to say that it is a big moral deal in every traditional religious sense. But you just don't care a lot about those old rules.

We like Fish most because he does not take himself seriously. At the conclusion of his column he does a truly talmudic about-face and decides the rule of law, the halakhah, for the case in which another professor lifted his work, "They took something from me without asking and without acknowledgment, and they profited — if only in the currency of academic reputation — from work that I had done and signed. That’s the bottom line and no fancy philosophical argument can erase it."

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