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Dec 21, 2004

On Martin Luther King's Plagiarism ...

Ralph Luker

Fifteen years ago, with Stanford's Clayborne Carson, I was responsible for directing research on Martin Luther King's early life for the Martin Luther King Papers Project. The arrangement was a sort of three legged stool, because most of the original documents on which we were to work were located in Special Collections at Boston University's Mugar Library, the senior editor was at Stanford, and my offices were at the King Center and at Emory University in Atlanta. When I joined the Project in 1986, indeed within his own lifetime (1929-1968), it was already known that there were issues about originality in Dr. King's sermons and speeches.

What became increasingly clear as we worked through the papers from King's early career is that there were serious problems of plagiarism in his academic work. Tim Burke's colleague at Swarthmore, Allison Dorsey, was one of many graduate students at Stanford and Emory who did the fine tooth combing of the secondary sources that King wove into his own compositions. What became clear was that they were a patchwork of his own language and the language of scholars, often without clear attribution. If anything, the pattern seemed to be that the more familiar King was with a subject, the less likely he was to plagiarize. On matters that were fairly alien to his experience, he borrowed heavily from others and often with only the slightest wink of attribution. To take two extreme examples, an autobiographical paper,"Autobiography of Religious Development" has no significant plagiarism in it; his paper on"The Chief Characteristics and Doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism," however, is composed almost exclusively of paragraphs lifted from the best secondary sources available to him. Moreover, the further King went in his academic career, the more deeply ingrained the patterns of borrowing language without clear attribution became. Thus, the plagiarism in his dissertation seemed to be, by then, the product of his long established practice.

When word of our findings leaked to the press, it appeared first in England and only later in the American press. It was, for several days, very big news indeed. Our five minutes of infamy waned and scholarly reflection took over. Boston University convened a panel to assess the situation. It concluded that there were serious problems with King's dissertation, made note of that, and concluded, nonetheless, that his doctorate should not be revoked. There were dissenting voices about that. Garry Wills, for one, argued that there was no statute of limitations on plagiarism. Neither death, nor Nobelity, nor immortality conferred immunity from the consequences of academic theft, he said. Boston should have revoked the doctorate.

Still, after all these years, in spite of many very important books and articles about Martin Luther King, there is much yet to be said about his plagiaries. For one thing, King's academic plagiarism deepened as he moved from being a very young college student at Morehouse, to a seminary student at Crozier, and finally a graduate student at Boston. He entered Morehouse at 15, a consequence of aggressive parental promotion and an early admissions program at the college to fill seats vacated by World War II's draft. His record at Morehouse was, altogether, rather mediocre and his teachers noted some carelessness in his papers. When he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, it was King's first experience as a racial minority student in a largely white student body and his grades dramatically improved.

Two things, it seems to me, were going on. First, King was a charming young guy, intent on returning to his professors the kind of work they expected of him. They, in turn, recommended to him sources which they, themselves, most deeply respected. So, the roots of King's plagiary lie in one of our two expectations of students. We expect them to learn what the authorities have to say about a subject. He worked the authorities' words into a seamless construct of his own creation and told his professors almost exactly what they, themselves, believed about a subject. To be candid, aren't we most likely to reward students with good grades when they say what we believe, in our heart of hearts, about a subject? What was lacking in King's academic work was the other thing which we commonly ask of students: originality of thought. To be candid, originality of thought is rare in any student, rare enough, even, in scholarship. We say we value it, but I suspect that originality of thought, if or when it raises an abrupt head, is fairly threatening to us.

The other thing that I think was going on, particularly in King's later academic career, was that he was being patronized by his liberal, white professors. That clearly was not the case when his undergraduate teachers at Morehouse evaluated his work. But when he went to predominately white institutions in the North, King received extra-ordinarily high grades for academic work which was not only often heavily plagiarized, but was otherwise quite unexceptional. There's probably no way to prove that King was being patronized, but I think that, in the context of the time, the temptation to over-reward a charming young African American student who told his liberal white professors in the North almost exactly what he knew they already deeply believed about a subject was simply overwhelming.

The tensions between valuing knowing what the authorities have said about a subject and producing a work of original thought came to a head in King's dissertation."A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman" is a sort of workman-like product, plagued with plagiarism, but passable if you're not paying attention. It is, however, no original contribution to scholarship. Isn't that what we say that we expect a dissertation to be? The reason that Martin Luther King's dissertation is of only historical interest is because it is all so predictable. He sets out, as an advocate of personalism, the theological persuasion of his mentors, to assess Paul Tillich's and Henry Nelson Wieman's doctrines of God. Boston personalism held that ultimate reality was personal. Tillich and Wieman were the most prominent spokesmen of their time for doctrines of God holding that ultimate reality was not personal. King's conclusion, that the doctrines of God in Tillich and Wieman, were flawed because they held that ultimate reality was impersonal was something altogether predictable by the terms of their premises. There was simply nothing new, interesting, or surprising there, at all.

I might conclude that none of this was fatal for King's career as a preacher and powerful public speaker. Had he pursued an academic career, his heavy reliance on the authorities, often without citing them, could have been fatal. But in preaching, perhaps even in most public speech, genuine originality is more often fatal. A congregation, even a public audience, expects to hear and responds to the word once delivered to the fathers [and mothers]. It is the familiar that resonates with us. The original sounds alien and tends to alienate. The familiar, especially the familiar that appeals to the best in us, is what we long to hear. So,"I Have A Dream" was no new vision; it was a recension, quite literally, of his own"An American Dream." And that dream, as we know, already had a long history. King's vision was, perhaps, more inclusive than earlier dreams, but it appealed to us because we already believed it.

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Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

<"Just because there is neither common law nor statutory law aimed against plagiarism does not imply that it is not wrong. .......Cheating on one's spouse is in almost no state illegal. >"

I know I am getting this article off topic, but I have to say that adultery is illegal in at least 11 states. Although the penalty is not enforced for it, it is still on the books as a crime.

Also, the reason plagiarism is not in common law is because nowhere near the number of people today were writing and reading when common law was popping up. There has been no new common law for over 200 years. The reason plagiarism is not codified as a crime is because plagiarism causes no physical harm to the victim and there is no monetary theft. Thus goes the difference between something illegal and something unethical.

Also, US Code Title 17, which is the copyright section, kind of puts plagiarism into a body of law. I would look specifically at "Section 1006. Entitlement to royalty payments" and "Section 801. Copyright arbitration royalty panels: Establishment and purpose" before making claims that plagiarism is not in some form of statutory law.

Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

Using Luker's philosophy that a speech-giver is a plagiarizer because he had read and used secondary sources to prepare the speech, makes me realize that all my old college professors--including myself--are nothing more than a plagiarizer! How many of our lectures are original? How many of our lectures are not based on secondary sources?

Goodwin and Ambrose got lambasted because they did not use quotation marks even though they cited their sources and comments with footnotes. Just as their attacks are petty, so too is any accusation about someone's speech, especially someone who is no longer around to defend himself.

If it is not written down somewhere and sounds in the speech as though it came from somewhere else, it cannot rightly be called plagiarism. The more we all write and read, the more we all increase the chance of sounding very similar. And it is not impossible for more than one person to have identical thoughts and opinions!

Ralph E. Luker - 12/30/2004

Professor Jones, If you had bothered to read what I said, you'd see that I said that cases of plagiarism that are charged under legal codes commonly are brought as violations of copyright. I cannot see that anyone you've said here challenges what I had already written.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/30/2004

Professor Johnson, You haven't thought this through very carefully. 1) It makes all the difference in the world _how_ you use _both_ primary and secondary sources. 2) According to _your_ "philosophy", everyone who is dead is immune to criticism because they're not around to defend themselves any longer. So much for doing history!

Jonathan Dresner - 12/25/2004

We could write a book on the precise definition of plagiarism. There is, for example, a general exemption from the requirement of footnoting for using ideas or facts which are "common knowledge" which includes common-sense definitions for common words

My definition of plagiarism was my own phrasing, though based of course on the common-sense academic understanding of source use and footnoting, and I had no idea that I was echoing the words of so many others; in fact, the reason I wrote my own definition in those words is that I hadn't run across a similarly compact and complete definition at the point at which I wrote it.

Syllabi, as well, often contain material that, if it were in an academic paper, might qualify as plagiarized, because we are required (increasingly) to include certain standard phrases and passages. But the syllabus, like the catalog, honor code, plagiarism policy, etc., is a procedural and policy document, not a scholarly (or journalistic) one. In fact, the very notion of "best practice" in teaching (or anything) suggests a certain amount of copying, imitation, etc.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/25/2004

Stop hitting the submit button after the first time? Seriously, though, I don't know what causes these multiple postings. Fortunately, the HNN gremlins can clean them up if they spot them before people comment on multiple versions of a comment.

John H. Lederer - 12/25/2004

Precisely -- so the definition of plagiarism (or at least wrongful plagiarism) must involve something more. What is it?


Please excuse my multiple postings of the same message. I am apaprently doing something wrong, but am unsure what....suggestions gratefully received.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/25/2004

Mr. Lederer, If you were to look more fully, you'll find that student honor codes, handbooks, guides to research, manuals of style, etc., are among the most commonly plagiarized of documents. A part of the reason is the understandable need for common understandings of the rules. The lawyers understand that very well -- and themselves generally agree on not re-inventing wheels.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/25/2004

Mr. Appell, I suspect that if you knew more about the subject than you do we'd have a little more nuanced statement from you.

John H. Lederer - 12/25/2004

Treacherous waters indeed.

If I put your definition of "plagiarism" into quotes and google it, I get 71 hits, most of which appear to be from other university's honor codes. As you say "most definitions..include", but I would suggest that the idea and indeed the very words (given the same word order) were likely copied.

So...there has to be something more to a definition of plagiarism, presumably something to do with the context.

We would say, assuming that plagiarism codes are not simply a mass of plagiarism, that it is OK for another university to copy your definition of "plagiarism", but not OK to copy something different -- your notes on Chinese history, for example.

A common saying is "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it", sometimes attributed to George Santayanna. Yet most translations of Thucydides I have looked at have the core of that idea in Thucydides's Introduction. When did plagiarism occur-- with Santayanna, or with Thucydides and some nameless Greek teacher of Thucydides?

Some have argued that we never have original ideas, just further developments of old ideas.

brad t appell - 12/25/2004

Who cares? No one did more to advance the cause of moral values in this country. He got stabbed, beaten and eventually shot to death for his cause. If he plagiarized I could care less.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/25/2004

I could be mistaken about this, but I believe that most plagiarism cases filed under civil law are a) treated as violations of copyright and b) settled out of court. There are big areas that may be considered plagiarism but are problemmatic as violations of copyright.

Derek Charles Catsam - 12/25/2004

John --
Just because there is neither common law nor statutory law aimed against plagiarism does not imply that it is not wrong. Law is one outlet, and an imperfect one, for capturing what society deems as right or wrong. Cheating on one's spouse is in almost no state illegal. Does that mean there is no implied immorality or other form of wrongness attached to it?
Of course if one seels a book heavily plagiarized from other sources, one could wondeer if fraud laws would not come into play, but I havenever seen such a case occur. Perhaps we also ought to consider civil law, a realm in which plagiarizers have in fact been nailed.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/24/2004

Most definitions of plagiarism that I'm familiar with include, as mine does, the idea that using other people's ideas or research without attribution is a form of intellectual dishonesty. It doesn't have the same force of law as patent protection, but the idea that a person should get due credit for their original ideas and labors is one of the cornerstones of modern academic practice. Insofar as there is a concept of "honor" in the academy, that has to be one of its chief applications.

John H. Lederer - 12/24/2004

My thought -- or at least a part of it, was that King's "I have a dream" speech was not in an academic context. If anything the context was that of a preacher delivering a sermon. In such a context, perhaps plagiarism does not exist.. but I do agree with you that ir dimishes King's role in intellectual history.

And, of course, the plagiarism in his thesis is in the academic context.

Dresner's two paragraphs do raise a second interesting issue. Copyright violations require using nearly identical words. It is a copying of a particular expression of an idea. The idea itself is unprotected. A paraphrase cannot be a copyright violation.

Does "plagiarism" extend to ideas, or a more generalized concept of the statement of an idea?

Note that such an extension can be very treacherous waters... a standard response for why copyright law does not violate freedom of speech is that one is at liberty to express the idea, one my not just use the identical wording, and this achieves the political purpose of freedom of speech.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/24/2004

But the second book would probably sell better. Look at John Gray's work, for example, which takes the work of Carol Gilligan and others on gender, relationship roles and language and reduces them to sixth grade language. He's made a fortune, and I've never seen a footnote in any of his works. Call me a footnote fetishist, if you must (I'd settle for a bibliography), but there's hardly anything original (I never saw anything, and it's hard to tell when he won't distinguish between his ideas and his predecessors) in Gray's work, and he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge his intellectual debts. He's not interested in academic credit, but I still consider his writings to be both ungrateful and deceptive.

You see similar kinds of writing by students: paraphrasing an academic source which addresses the question without adding anything original of their own. I still struggle with explaining to students why that's a problem, but most of the time when I ask questions for essays that isn't a good way to answer the question.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/24/2004

As I indicated, the unattributed use of other people's words and/or ideas happens very commonly in public speech, where it is often distracting to say, for example: "As Amos said, 'Let justice roll down like waters ....'" There are, even, other fields in which plagiarism is common and not believed to be wrongful, as in legal rulings. In these cases, there seems to be a "common treasury" of language from which we borrow at will. I even did it myself, without quotation marks, in the the blog post you are commenting on when I wrote of "the word once delivered to the fathers". I'm fairly sure that that language is not originally my own, though Google gives me no other citation for it. Nonetheless, when we do it, it does not magnify our role as originators or creators of original language or thought. In that sense, at least, the findings of plagiarism in the papers, sermons, and speeches of Martin Luther King do have a tendency to undermine any place he might otherwise have in American intellectual history. (And, I have to say that it distresses me when the consequences of using other people's language without attribution results in a hilarity such as the Southern Poverty Law Center's monument on which "Let justice roll down like waters ..." is attributed to King, as if no one ever before him had ever said such a thing.)
My response to your first query has implications for the second. Whether a paraphrase or borrowing of a metaphor is wrongful to the extent that it could be found a violation of law in court is, in some ways, beside the point. A scrupulously careful paraphraser might publish an entire book which is, even, paragraph by paragraph derivative of another book. The paraphraser might _still_ escape any legal finding of theft. Nonetheless, the academic community ought in that case to conclude that the work is of no value.

John H. Lederer - 12/24/2004

Intellectual property "crimes" -- copyright, patent, etc. are statutory wrongs, not common law wrongs. They are violations of state granted monopolies, not "theft" as that is commonly understood, RIAA's advertising notwithstanding.

The lack of common law support suggests that no consensus exists that they are morally wrong (Thomas Jefferson offers the most standard moral defense in his candle analogy).

Plagiarism is not even a statutory wrong. Unless it rises to a copyright or tradename violation, it is purely an "academic" wrong -- a violation of the formal or informal mores of academic and related life.

Plagiarim is usually deemed a wrong by the public when the intent is to make the author seem more learned or intelligent than he is, e.g. Sen. Biden's plagiarism to make him seem an international relations wonk, or a student's copying of someone else's work to get a better grade.

Query 1: King's "I have a dream" speech is not in the academic field, and is not, I think, an attempt to burnish King's image. Instead it is an attempt to influence an audience. In that circumstance can there be wrongful plagiarism?

Query 2: Copyright requires aan almost word for word copying. Plagiarism is often extended to include the use of someone else's ideas without attribution, e.g. a papraphrase or even less. Is plagiarism in that sense sufficiently well defined so that a meaningful determination of a violation can be made? Should that extended sense of plagiarism be wrong? Is King's use of someone else's metaphor and analogies wrong?

Ralph E. Luker - 12/24/2004

Does anyone care that you can't spell?

greg childs - 12/24/2004

Nobody cares that King was a plagerist. But people know that he was a great man.

chris l pettit - 12/23/2004

I would reply that it would depend on your philosophical stance. Personally? In print it would qualify as blatant plagiarism...and he most certainly should have credited the source from which he, I and Dr. Dresner are completely in agreement that there is no gray area here. I just wanted to dig a bit deeper into his reasons for including the quote, the context in which it was lifted and included, what (including self interest) would be MLKs reasoning for not giving credit, and the general philosophical potholes that underlie any discussion of plagiarism. I reiterate that I am in full agreement that the quote that you cite should qualify as plagiarism and that credit should have been given where due. I just am wondering why we think this way and where the perimeters are drawn and for what reasons. I also wanted to question whether, as Dr. Dresner started to touch upon, the vision and general ideals that someone is standing for can override a failure in scholarship, or whether that failure in scholarship somehow takes away from the authenticity and quality of the message that is being articulated. I would state that unless the plagiarism is widespread and blatant, and that the fundamental tenets of the message were actually about increasing one's own profile and self interest, instead of helping others and promoting peace and human rights, the errors in scholarship can be noted, but not given any great weight. MLK was certainly one who believed in human rights and peace, and was not out solely for his own benefit. In the narrow area of debating his scholarship...yes, his credibility is weakened, but do we think of MLK as a great scholar or a great humanitarian? I personally look at him as a beacon for human rights and peace, and consider his scholarship (or errors in that scholarship) to be secondary.

I honestly think that you, I and Dr. Dresner are completely in agreement but may just be talking on a couple of different wavelengths...

Happy Holidays Fellas...may they be filled with peace and joy.


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/22/2004

Since we're coming up on Christmas, and anniversaries are often considered news, a note from someone like you, Ralph, on Harry T. Moore and his legacy (a courthouse in Brevard is now named after him) might be well-received. Mims has traditionally been the most redneck area of Brevard, with an historically large KKK membership. I once interviewed a guy there with an "I Ride With Forrest" sticker on his truck, and he told me there was some sort of migratory pipeline from West Virginia to Mims. I don't know if that has been researched much.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/22/2004

I'm not sure that I'm understand you correctly. Do you mean that there is no difference between saying:
1) Right here in Montgomery, Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like a mighty stream.
and saying:
2) Right here in Montgomery, "Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Of course, in the spoken sermon or public speech, there is no difference. In the published version, there should be.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/22/2004

Mr. Pettit,

You wrote that "this takes nothing away from his vision and scholarship." While I agree with you about the former (though his debt to Gandhi is often underestimated in this regard as well), it is the latter which is at issue here. The pattern of textual appropriation which Ralph describes does indeed detract from King's scholarship, as it is fundamentally at odds with modern standards of academic integrity.

Yes, there are gray areas, but this just isn't one of them.

chris l pettit - 12/22/2004

I was actually meaning to agree with your post, which I did read. I just wanted to expand the discussion somewhat. It just seems to me that our interpretations of what Dr. King wrote will necessarily cloud and make unique our ideas of what was plagiarised and what was not. THis is not to say that he did not plagiarise...but rather to suggest that maybe we are criticising his failure to cite others, not his taking of their ideas.

If you want a different viewpoint, you can go with what Richard suggested...that everything is original as it happens in a totally unique and individual reality. The countless relationships that lead to my posting this comment have never happened and will never happen again. In fact, this sentence has a different originality than the last one I wrote due to the fact that it is affected by the last sentence. In that sense, everything is original and we can have no complaints whatsoever about plagiarism since the circumstances surrounding the meaning and interpretation of what is supposedly plagiarised will be different (maybe not substantially) from their "original" usage due to the fact that it is a totally different stream of consciousness. I know this is uncomfortable for those who want to think that their actually are independent entities in the world, but sadly that idea does not hold up to logical and rational scrutiny.

I agree with you about Dr. King's plagiarism and wish that he would have been more careful citing his sources. However, at least for me, this takes nothing away from his vision and scholarship, as we all have imperfections in our work, way of living, etc. it just comes with being human.

In another vein...I always cite as many sources as possible and believe that the footnotes in a text are usually more interesting and important than the text itself. I refuse to be one of those arrogant professors who is silly enough to believe that I have anything extraordinary to bestow on the world. It is up to others to decide in their capacities, and I have never taken awards or honors to mean anything other than others found it agreeable in their realities to honor me in a given moment. it says nothing about my scholarship overall...which is really irrelevant given that there is no objective reality in which everyone will agree that I am some fantastic prof or something. I am simply trying to demonstrate ideas and concepts that others can use in their realities to come to the conclusions that they will come to. It is all a big system and I merely want to play my part.


Greg James Robinson - 12/22/2004

I agree that Ralph's post is much to the point. The evidence that King expanded his practice of plagiarism as he progressed academically is indeed disturbing, as is his success at it. Clearly, nobody was on their guard and questioning where a charming young African American student could have absorbed so much information about Mahayana Buddhism. It is no doubt akin to Alex Haley's success at ducking responsibility for plagiarism and fabrications, as Philip Nobile has shown in his compelling research. (I discovered some years ago that Job Ben Solomon, an 18 century slave author and biographical subject, had told of Juffure and of being sold into slavery and sent from Gambia to Annapolis, which confirmed for me that Kunta Kinte had to be copied.) It is an object lesson for us white professors not to be overgenerous with African American students, simply out of fear of building on discrimination. I can't help but think of what would have happened if King's plagiarism had been discovered in full during his lifetime, but then Helen Keller seems to have emerged with her future reputation intact from the scandal of her plagiarism of a children's book.
In any case, while I am glad that Ralph's post has fostered such serious self-examination by my colleagues here, I think that it is possible for us as professors to take too much responsibility on ourselves for plaigarism. I do not expect my students to repeat back to me what I have said; if anything, I make a point of being generous whenever possible with the works of students who present positions with which I disagree. Similarly, King's actions demonstrate the fallacy of the old saw that taking one author's ideas is plagiarism, and taking many author's ideas is research; rather, the copying of others's language is the tangible sign of knowingly appropriating their ideas.
I have just learned from a Chinese colleague that cheating, including plagiarism, is rampant in China. There are thus presumably larger forced at work here than just a failure of our own society.

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/21/2004

Anthony Grafton of Princeton has written an amusing little book on the history of the footnote -- I think it has a useful bibliography on associated questions surrounding the history of attribution.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2004

I confess to having watched the wall-to-wall coverage of the 1952 Republican and Democratic conventions on television. They really were interesting to watch before the public relations experts seized control of everything and so sanitized them that there isn't very much interesting to see or hear at major party political conventions any more. I suspect that CBS or NBC has a viewable version of Carey's speech, tho no one has dug it out yet and played it alongside King's speech for comparison. The Goldwater letter is an interesting find.

David T. Beito - 12/21/2004

Did you see it on televison? I always wondered if a copy of that speech has been preserved on film and how his delivery compared with that of King. Interestingly, Carey received several fan letter after the speech. One was from a little known city councilman in Phoenix named Barry Goldwater.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2004

Thanks, David. I'm not sure we know how it happened. I don't recall whether we know whether Carey's speech was published somewhere or not. There seems little doubt about King's lifting some of Carey's rhetoric from that 1952 speech. It is possible that MLK heard it the same way I did. He may have seen it on television. King would have been 23 years old when Carey gave that speech. He would have graduated from seminary, been in his early graduate school years, and at home for the summer to serve as assistant pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, his father's congregation. MLK, Sr., was a Republican and it is highly likely that King Sr. and Jr. would have been gathered around the television set for Carey's address.

David T. Beito - 12/21/2004


A thoughtful piece. Have you ever looked into the story of how and why King apparently took part of his "I have a Dream Speech" from one delivered by Archibald Carey Jr. When I was looking through Carey's papers for the bio of T.R.M. Howard, I found a copy of Carey's speech (which was to the the Republican National Convention in 1952) and saw some of striking parallels in wording especially to the closing section of King's speech.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2004

Very good question, Manan. I'm not exactly sure when source citations as annotations first begin appearing western texts. Two key moves are at play, I think. One is individualistic capitalism's deepening commitment to notions of private property rights, even private property in language and, what is more difficult, in ideas. The other, I think, is the development of the seminar in German universities, first, and its expansion elsewhere. It emphasized both the learning of what authorities have said, which as you suggest is at the heart of even pre-modern forms of learning (and still prevails in many traditional societies), and the value of original thought. Maybe clear attribution developed, for one thing, as a way of distinguishing the latter from the former. In other words, you attribute what you have learned from others and your non-attributed text stakes your claim to what is original in your work. We still obviously do value exact reproduction of older texts, but they are then hedged in by quotation marks or indentation. Those particular conventions still are awkward for popular texts, whether it's a sermon or a work of popular history. Attribution can be intrusive in telling a moving story, so when even I preach and say "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" I may or may not pause to attribute those words to Amos. In a society with an attenuating hold on its literary sources, my audience may vaguely recall that as sounding right and, thus, it resonates; but there is now the possibility that someone or many ones will think that Martin Luther King or Ralph Luker originally said it.

Manan Ahmed - 12/21/2004

Ralph, great post.

My question is more about the academy. When did the notion of attribution and originality become normalized in western academy? Is this a 20th c. phenomenon?

In pre-modern societies we had the opposite emphasis on exact and error-free reproduction and the modes of knowledge still exist that privilige that. I am thinking here specifically of religious texts within the Indo-Persianate culture.
Your post reminded me of another religious speaker Maududi who left journalism (and the academy) at the turn of the century in India because of calls that his work was too "original" and didn't adhere to the standard of exact quotation and supporting of pre-existing knowledge. After he became an established political leader and intellectual, there were several calls to take away his seminary qualifications because he had not fulfilled them properly - mostly to no avail.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2004

Chris, If you bothered to read what I said, you'd recall that I said that genuine originality is rare. If you looked at the heavily annotated published papers of MLK, you'd see for yourself that many of his academic papers, including the dissertation, were heavily plagiarized by any definition of the meaning of the word plagiarism. Look for yourself and watch out for the risks of your own patronage.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2004

Good question, which may be impossible of a completely satisfying answer, but there are suggestive clues. At Morehouse, King's grades averaged no better than about a C+. That, despite the fact that his father was a member of the college's board of trustees and a well known figure in the college community. King's application to attend Yale Divinity School was rejected. At Crozer, a much less competitive school, King's grades averaged about an A- and he graduated with two awards from the faculty: one as "the outstanding member of his class" and the other of $1,200 toward graduate study. No one has done a comparative transcript study. I'm not sure that one coud be done and I'm not sure that King graduated with the highest average in his class, but he would have been close to it. At Boston, where too many graduate students were admitted to allow careful attention by professors, King had a record comparable to that at Crozer -- except for a crisis semester, in which he had a couple of academic disasters, including failing a language exam.

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/21/2004

A lot of our thoughts aren't particularly original. Some of our self-regarding thoughts are original -- I daresay that nobody in history has had the thought that I'm typing this message at this point in time. And in between is a whole host of thoughts that are either original, or whose proof is original. Often it is only the proof offered that is original -- Fermat had the thought, as had people before him, but only recently was it proven.

Taking ideas of others is problematic to establish when the ideas are of such common coin as to elude a determination of origin. Expression of ideas can often be less problematic. I think you'll find, Chris, that MLK took others' words and presented them as his own, without attribution, including part of a dissertation completed under the same dissertation director by another student just a few years before. Ralph explained that the school had exploded in enrolment, the professors juggling too many balls at once, so that the fact that the professor missed that is perhaps explicable by reasons other than timidity or laziness or patronizing behavior or politics. I doubt MLK would have done this had he any academic ambitions -- he just wanted to learn and jump through the hoops, and get that 'Dr.' in front of his name for career purposes.

chris l pettit - 12/21/2004

while a disagree with the idea of plagiarism...

have you ever given thought to the FACT that nothing any of us say is original or has never been thought or siad before? The idea that any of us have any sort of idividual thought as though we were some sort of separate and independent entity is not only absurd, but absolutely indefensible from a logical standpoint. Everything that I say has been affected by those who have taught me, my readings, my surrounding environment, my students, and my colleagues. it is not my comes from all of them. i am merely a product of the interconnectedness that we all share as part of the academic environment. That being said...if you blatantly quote someone and copy their exact should give them credit. But if you consider plagiarism to be the practice of taking the ideas of others and making them your own...even submitting them as your own...we are all plagiarists and plagiarism ceases to have any meaning. Our ideas are not our own. I really don;t wish to get into a religious discussion regarding how it is impossible to argue logically the existence of a soul and that we are nothing but products of our relationships with one another and the environment, but that may be where we are headed on this issue.

I find MLK's taking of others ideas and incorporating them into his philosophy and ideology to be perfectly fine. If he presents anything as an original thought, he is wrong of course...but so is anyone who presents anything as a truly original thought, as such things are not logically possible for it would mean that the entity would necessarily have to exist without any interaction with any other entity to claim to have come to a thought with any originality. And then the entity could not share they thought because in the sharing of the thought, the thought would necessarily be altered by the perception of those receiving the thought, and would cease to be original.

I suppose I am just saying be careful with your terms and exactly what you are claiming. If he blatanly copied someone's work...ok, there is a problem there...but if he simply incorporated an idea into his matter how blatantly similar that idea is...well, then those in glass houses should not cast stones.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/21/2004

Have you, or anyone else that you know of, actually examined the question of King's grades relative to the grades of the people around him? It seems to me that a part of the question of whether he was being patronized or given a pass would hinge on a comparison with other people doing similar quality work as well as other people getting similar grades (they may or may not be strongly overlapping sets; if they are, then it weakens the case that his professors were treating him differently).