When I saw the 10th or so “you must read this” tweet, linking to Gillian Schutte’s latest piece on the Mail&Guardian’s Thought Leader blog, I finally caved in and read it. With some trepidation, mind you, seeing as I’ve not read anything of Schutte’s since her “Dear white people” tried to tell everyone with low melanin levels what they were supposed to think. If you’ve been here before, you probably know why I reject that form of identity politics, and Schutte seems to be quite heavily invested in it.
But here we were, 10 months later, and given that so many people were endorsing the most recent piece (including a few people whose judgements I trust), I thought I’d give it a try. The piece itself was typical of the Schutte pieces I’ve read – too crude and generalising for my tastes, but all the while making some points certainly worthy of reflection.
Then I looked at the comments, and saw this:
A quick skim of the post linked to there reveals significant overlap in style and content with Schutte’s piece. Compare, for instance, points 31 and 32 in Schutte’s piece with 14 and 15 in the other post. As an occasional member of the opinionista class, I didn’t want to leap to conclusions or make unnecessary trouble for a fellow writer, so I reached out to a senior person at the Mail&Guardian, asking him to look at this possible plagiarism.
It’s 3 days later, and nothing in the post has been edited to reflect the extent to which it’s derivative of the other piece (which seems to be an extract from a published book, Richard Dyer’s “White: essays on race and culture”). Schutte does link to the essay in question (twice, in fact), but simply linking to something falls far short of acknowledging that you’ve borrowed extensively from it. Especially given that there is no indication in the piece that the two links are any different to the other links in the piece – most readers would assume that the links are to additional or supplementary, rather than source, material.
Even worse, what you see in this case is not simply paraphrasing, such that would require something like “as Richard Dyer explains,…”, but rather, verbatim lifting from the source without any quotation marks whatsoever.
In short, Gillian Schutte’s Thought Leader piece is plagiarised, and amounts to Thought Parasitism rather than Thought Leadership (with credit to a friend for that phrase). The extent of the parasitism? 15% of Schutte’s piece is word-for-word the same as Dyer’s. And this, in a piece that takes the moral high-ground, lecturing others on the positions they should take. And if you’re wondering, yes, the problem was pointed out to her, both in the comment above, as well as in two tweets that were cc’ed to her.
If this were a student submission, I’d award 0%, and remind the student of the conventions of citation, which are there so that we can give credit to those who inform our thinking. These conventions are a vital part of intellectual activity, in that they are one of a writers’ vehicles for claiming ideas or phrases as our own. They are a safeguard of originality, and make your achievements in getting a good mark for an essay, or getting your book published, the achievements that they are.
When we don’t respect intellectual honesty and the academic conventions that support that honesty, we devalue everybody’s achievements in this area, because the currency for determining value is being undermined. Yes, you’d explain this to a 1st-year student, and maybe give them a chance to re-submit. I normally wouldn’t refer a 1st-year student to the University’s disciplinary tribunal for this sort of offence, especially a 1st-timer.
Schutte might well be a 1st-timer in this regard. However, she has a Master’s degree. What she doesn’t have is an excuse. And when you think back to the consequences that a Darrel Bristow-Bovey, for example, had to endure for his plagiarism, you’d know that there was a time when South African media consumers and producers took this seriously.
Let’s see if they still do, and let’s see if Schutte does.
Edit: Schutte’s response?
A further edit, seeing as Schutte is accusing me of ‘lying’, never mind being an arsehole. As I say above, those hyperlinks give you no reason to believe they are references to a source. Plus, Schutte doesn’t seem to understand that quotation marks are necessary when you use someone else’s content, word-for-word.
And that simply cannot be squared with, for example, this (with the red bits being verbatim stolen text):