Academia and teaching Culture

Plagiarism #2

My previous post on Stephen Watson’s allegations of plagiarism, levelled at Antjie Krog, comes down on Watson’s side. Subsequent to that post, Krog, her publishers, and Eve Gray have responded to the allegations. Having read these responses – particularly those of Krog and Gray – it becomes clear that I posted in haste, largely driven by a historical respect for Watson, a dislike for Krog’s Country of My Skull, and my own daily battles against plagiarists in my classrooms.

I no longer believe there to be any merit to Watson’s charges, and am now far more interested in the question of why he felt it necessary to be so hostile and disingenuous in his treatment of what appears to be a non-issue. Could it be as simple a thing as jealousy, given his relative obscurity of late?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

12 replies on “Plagiarism #2”

After reading Krog’s response in the Sunday papers, I too must admit an over-hastiness in believing and trusting the Watson piece. Krog seems to have vinidcated herself, and the question remains: why did Watson, who generally doesn’t waste his time (i.e. writes only when he feels he has something important to say), commit this to paper. I am reluctant to ascribe it simply to professional jealousy. While I do not share a historical respect for Watson, it is hard to believe that the piece was driven by jealousy. Am I just being naive?

I am amazed that those of you who have read the Sunday Times piece – and today’s Cape Times article – feel that Krog has vindicated herself. The central proof, for me (though not for Watson – he tags this on as an afterthought, almost, though a damning one, in the New Contrast article) is the excerpt quoted in the Sunday Times, and by Watson, from Ted Hughes’ essay on myth – and Krog’s blatantly plagiarised version of it. The entire /Xam matter pales in comparison to this – or rather, this casts a new light over all of Krog’s work.

Watson’s motivation is not, incidentally, professional jealousy, but a firm conviction that Krog is trying to get away with something that is deeply, and shamefully wrong, and an insult to both her fellow writers and readers alike.

I agree that the Hughes connection has more merit, at least on the surface of things. But Watson does represent this quite dishonestly – I don’t see any blatant plagiarism (conveniently defined here as 3 identical words in a row), but rather an exploration of similar (and not arcane, therefore not unusual to find from 2 authors) themes. The piece Krog allegedly plagiarised is stretched over 3 pages in Hughes, rather than being the discrete passage Watson presents it as. So I buy Krog’s assertion that she’s not depending on it, and of her treatment of those themes not being dependent on Hughes. They’re not similar enough for Krog to have lifted them, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure if it’s true that she’s never read the Hughes, though…

I didn’t realise the Hughes piece was spread over a number of passages! However, plagiarism isn’t a question, surely, of “dependence” – it’s not about weighing up whether there’s more copied work than original, or vice versa (see Robert Kirby’s biting comment on Michiel Heyns in last week’s M&G), or even assessing which carries more weight in the passage concerned. It’s about stealing words or ideas in recognisable pieces – and the phrases Watson isolates in both essays are, for me, striking enough (and central enough to the subject each discusses) to count. Perhaps if Krog had used “unit of imagination” by itself, without the accompanying phrases lifted from the same Hughes essay, her defence would be more convincing – or if she’d mixed and matched thefts from different places (much harder to spot!). But to echo more than once a particular Hughes essay in a single work of hers is far too obvious.

“Watson’s motivation is not, incidentally, professional jealousy …” Hmmm … how would you know? My money’s on nose-firmly-out-of-joint-because-he-wasn’t-metioned – pure and simple.

I know because I have discussed the original paper with Watson, whose scorn for Krog as a poet (this is evident, is it not, in his article?) is such that to accuse him of jealousy is laughable. And surely his belief that his /Xam book should have been mentioned somewhere doesn’t consitute professional jealousy? For Krog not to do so (and her doing so would not exactly have showered Watson in glory – he would sit quietly in a footnote somewhere or buried in an introduction) is bad academic and intellectual form, and it’s one of the numerous omissions in the book that point to the plagiarism that’s there.

Jealousy and scorn are not mutually exclusive. Very often people are more jealous of the success of those they think are less deserving of it (and less deserving than they think they themselves are). If he had written everything he wrote in the article, in a more objective tone, he would have retained some credibility. As it is, all that remains is the sneer of his scorn, which leaves him looking less than professional.

Well, we’ve reached an impasse on Watson – but I don’t think his credibility is what’s important anyway – it’s Krog’s, which is all shot to hell. No matter how vicious Watson may be in your view, it’s difficult to say that he fails to present his argument about Krog with *intellectual* integrity. Sure, he hates her, but he justifies that hatred pretty well.

Hot off the press is news of another plagiarism suit against Krog that she’s kept under wraps for some time. How the mighty have fallen.

On the contrary, I think it’s easy to say that he fails to demonstrate intellectual integrity (with the repeated exception of the Hughes connection) – Eve Gray’s piece says exactly that, quite persuasively. And even though Krog’s credibility will suffer more, one shouldn’t use that as an opportunity to ignore flaws in Watson’s argument (or character, where that’s relevant). I hope that Krog gets destroyed, or at least damaged, by all this. I know it’s small-minded, but I don’t like her or her books, and I don’t like to see our worst artists being feted like our best should be. But none of this means we should ignore the signs of Watson having lost the plot – or of our having been naive in trusting him so much in the first place.

Well it’s clear that you (Mrs R) are gleeful about Krog’s credibility being “all shot to hell”, and “how the mighty have fallen”, though whether this is a result of your own opinion of her work/personality, or simply in support of Watson, is unclear. Personally, I think his credibility is equally “shot to hell”. He will probably become best known as oh-yes-that-nasty-academic-that-runs-the-English-dept-at-UCT, rather than for his (sometimes fine) poetry.

What amazes me is the enthusiasm with which you (SlackCollective) are looking forward to seeing Krog “destroyed” or “at least damaged”. Gives new meaning to “literary criticism”, and “academic objectivity”.

I am indeed gleeful that Krog may suffer for what she’s done, but my glee arises neither from some kind of personal dislike of Krog (she’s a nonentity for me outside of her plagiarism) or from my support of Watson. Rather, it arises from the profound disgust that I have for plagiarists, for the Bristow-Boveys and Joostes and Robinsons of this world. As a writer, I am sickened by them, and I can think of no better punishment than that they should be exposed. If Krog were a student at any decent university, she’d be facing expulsion.

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