We tend to think of plagiarism as being the last refuge for the lazy, the cheaters and the incompetent. We like to think of plagiarists as people whose lack of character exceeds their lack of talent.
However, history has shown us that it is not always the case. While some plagiarists, like Jayson Blair and Jonah Lehrer, have their careers dashed on the rocks of their unethical behavior, still others have plagiarism as merely a footnote as part of a long, great career.
Why this is isn’t always clear. Sometimes it has to do with the era the plagiarism too place in, the specific facts around the case or just the simple fact it wasn’t an important part of their lives.
In short, people exhibit poor judgment, even great ones, and sometimes that mistake is plagiarism. That should not diminish their accomplishments.
On that note, here are five examples of people who have, with some validity, been accused of plagiarism but have not had the careers, names or reputations significantly tainted, usually because the scope of their accompaniments far exceeds the allegations themselves.
1. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatness needs no explanation or introduction.
In the 50s and 60s his leadership in the civil rights movement not only won King a Nobel Peace Prize but also helped bring about radical change in the United States. His iconic “I Have a Dream” speech is still remembered as one of the most powerful and important speeches in U.S. history.
His mark on American history runs deep and he continues to inspire others today to fight injustice and push for equality for all.
King’s most prominent run-in with plagiarism took place in 1955. In support of his doctorate at Boston University, King turned in a dissertation entitled, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” He was able to successfully defend his dissertation and went on to receive his degree.
However, after his wife donated King’s papers to the Stanford University King Papers Project, the group organizing the papers learned that portions of his earlier writings, including his doctoral thesis, were taken from other authors. Ralph Lurker, a historian who worked on the project said that, as King continued with his academic career the attribution issues became more “deeply engrained” and were a “long-established practice” by the time he wrote his dissertation.
Allegations have also been levied at some of his later works, including his “I have a Dream” speech”, which was allegedly stolen from another pastor, Archibald Carey. However, the similarities between the two works, is very limited and is explained by both speeches pulling form an earlier work, namely Samuel Francis Smith’s hymn “America”.
In the end though, Boston University did investigate the allegations of plagiarism and, in 1991, found that King’s dissertation did contain plagiarism. However, while the school appended a note to the dissertation, it declined to revoke his degree saying that the dissertation, despite its shortcomings, still contributed to the field.
The allegations of plagiarism only came about decades after his death. By then, he was (rightfully) already a national hero. While the plagiarism allegations have become a footnote, they haven’t drastically changed the views people have about King or his legacy.
This makes sense because King’s accomplishments were outside of academia. As Lurker said in his article, if King had chosen a different career path, his plagiarism could have posed a much larger problem. But as a civil rights leader, King’s plagiarism is an unwanted footnote overshadowed by greater accompaniments.
2. Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall is one of the few scientists few scientists that can be readily named by the general public. Best known for her lifetime of work studying chimpanzees in Tanzania, she is not only known as one of the foremost experts on chimpanzees, but for her efforts on conservation and animal rights.
The author of numerous books, papers and other works, Goodall has spent over 50 years helping humans better understand chimpanzees and just how similar they are to us. She has also been the public face of the movement, routinely appearing on television shows and in other media to get her message out.
Where King’s plagiarism took place before his career began, Goodall’s plagiarism allegations come at the most recent parts of her extremely long career.
In early 2013 Goodall was preparing to release a new book entitled “Seeds of Hope”. However, when review copies were sent out to various papers, Steven Levingston at the Washington Post noticed that the book contained several passages used without attribution.
To make matters worse, the passages came from sources that were less-than-desirable including Wikipedia, astrology sites and so forth.
The Daily Beast followed up and said it found proof that even more passages were lifted, creating further concern about the release of the book.
Goodall apologized for the plagiarism and blamed “chaotic note taking” for the problems. The book ended up being postponed to address the plagiarism issues and was released in early 2014.
Many, including myself, feel that the book shouldn’t have been published. Not only the plagiarism issues, but the quality of sources call into question the work.
However, Goodall herself has always been somewhat divisive among scientists. Though well-regarded as a public figure, her approach to science, which included naming chimpanzees rather than number them, has always been controversial.
Considering that this is the first instance of plagiarism in an otherwise long and ethically spotless career, it makes sense that this incident would not destroy her reputation single-handedly. Though a half century of prominent research doesn’t buy one the right to plagiarize, it does buy additional forgiveness, especially for a problem that was caught early.
It also helps that the plagiarism is not in her core field. Seeds of Hope is a departure for Goodall, discussing plant life rather than primates. While relevant to her message of environmentalism and conservation, it has little to do with her work as a researcher.
3. Johnny Cash
One of the biggest names in music history, Johnny Cash is primarily thought of as a country musician but has actually been inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Gospel Music Halls of fame.
Cash’s many hits include songs such as I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, A Boy Named Sue and Jackson, a duet with his wife June Carter Cash.
Known as much for his black attire as his music, “The Man in Black” enjoyed a career spanning nearly five decades that earned him countless awards and his music continues to influence multiple genres of music to this day.
In 1955 Johnny Cash recorded the song “Folsom Prison Blues”, the tale of a convicted murder being tortured by the sound of a passing train while stuck in prison. It was released that year and rereleased again in 1968 after he performed the song at Folsom Prison.
However, Cash had lifted the melody and much of the lyrics from a 1953 song “Crescent City Blues” by Gordon Jenkins, about a narrator hoping to get out of a small midwest town. Though Cash had changed the song fairly drastically, turning it into a piece about regret and imprisonment, the similarities were still more than glaring.
The plagiarism resulted in a lawsuit, which was quickly settled with Cash paying $75,000 to put the issue to rest. That amount is worth about $660,000 today.
The lawsuit and allegations didn’t seem to impact Cash’s career at all. He went on to release countless other hits, have his own TV show and find success nearly everywhere he went.
The incident seems to be an isolated (and expensive) one from Cash’s career and it seems both the music industry and the public have forgiven/forgotten. This is compounded by the fact that musical plagiarism seems to be extremely common. After all, the Beach Boys, George Harrison and most recently Sam Smith were all involved in plagiarism disputes.
Of course, Led Zeppelin is probably the most famous serial musical plagiarist and their name hasn’t suffered much as a result either.
It seems that, while copyright lawsuits are expensive, music plagiarism rarely kills careers.
4. Helen Keller
Born in 1880, at 19 months old, Helen Keller became blind and deaf due to an illness. After being educated by Anne Sullivan, a story immortalized in the play and film The Miracle Worker, Keller went on to be the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor or arts and went on to be a prolific author, public speaker and political activist.
Today, Keller is best known from The Miracle Worker and from her autobiography, The Story of My Life. In 1961 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ highest civilian honors and in 1965 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
At age 11, Keller was already a celebrity. She penned a short story entitled The Frost King that was, picked up by The Goodson Gazette, a journal about deaf-blind education. However, after its publication, it was noticed that the story bore a strong resemblance to another short story entitled Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby.
Initially, the blame was put on the people around Keller on the theory that she was being exploited. Keller though, repeatedly stated that she had never been exposed to Frost Fairies, did not own a copy of it and she had no recollection of the story.
According to Sullivan, her investigation into the matter found that a copy of the story was in the house that Keller stayed at while Sullivan was on vacation and it was read to her there. Keller claims to have forgotten being read the story though she retained much of the plot.
The case is often cited as an example of Cryptomnesia.
Keller’s plagiarism tale is a pretty unusual one.
Her career had not started when the incident took place. At just 11 years old, she was still a child, even if she was already a celebrity, and blame never really fell on her. Instead, it was Sullivan and others around Keller who were accused of the misdeed.
Still, the incident had no lasting effect on her career and is more of a bizarre footnote than anything. This is further driven home by the seemingly-credible allegations of cryptomnesia and this case becomes more a “strange incident” than an ethical misstep.
No other significant allegations of plagiarism were made against Keller for the rest of her career.
5. T.S. Eliot
Thomas Sterns Eliot, better known as T.S. Eliot was world-renowned poet and and playwright famous for writing the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Hollow Men and various plays, including Murder in the Cathedral.
Still, it was far and away his poetry that earned him his accolades, including as Nobel Prize in literature, which he received in 1948. He remains one of the best-known and most-studied poets in the English language.
In 1922 Eliot published the popular poem The Waste Land. Decades later it was discovered that the poem was largely a hodgepodge of text from lesser-known poets, one of them named Madison Casein and his poem entitled Waste Land.
Well before the publication of The Waste Land, Eliot had already made no secret about his appropriation. In 1920 he published an essay that famously said, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Evidence of Eliot’s plagiarism did come up during his life. However, most of the times the evidence was dismissed as either being an allusion or an homage to the previous work. Eliot was the picture of success for his entire life.
But since his death, his reputation has taken a bit more of a toll with critics repeatedly attacking his unoriginality.
While Eliot is still widely regarded as an important poet and a key name to study, the beating his image has taken may keep him off a list like this one in 10 to 20 years from now, just because he may be as well known for his unoriginality as his poetry.
Still, the fact remains that, in his life, Eliot was never seriously hurt by the allegations and he remains one of the few poets that are widely known by the general public.
Human beings tend to be very complicated creatures. We all do things that we aren’t proud of, we all have things we wish we could take back and we’ve all made stupid decisions.
While it’s tempting to paint plagiarists with a broad brush, judging anyone by their bad deeds or greatest mistakes alone is unfair. If we believe that many serious criminals can turn their lives around and do good that outweighs their mistakes, then plagiarists can too.
To be clear, plagiarism is still a significant misstep. It is a lie and it deprives original creators the rewards for their work. No industry or culture that values originality can afford to take plagiarism lightly.
However, we shouldn’t take it so heavily that we never give a plagiarist, especially a first offense plagiarist, a chance redeem themselves and better the world.
Doing that not only creates a culture of fear around plagiarism, but it deprives the rest of society the potential great works and deeds that a former plagiarist creates.
In the end though, what’s unfair about these stories is not that several plagiarists were able to have great careers and achieve amazing things, but that others in the exact same position with similar misdeeds were not.
Right now, there is little to no consistency as to how the ethics of plagiarism are enforced and that creates double and triple standards that keep many serious plagiarists working, while shoving others out of their fields.
But as we move forward with fixing this unbalance in the system, we need to remember that not every plagiarist is a bad person with nothing to contribute to society. Even as we work to minimize plagiarism, we should work to maximize contribution to society.
Think how much would have been lost if the work of those above had been lost to us forever due to plagiarism? Would the world be a richer place? Almost certainly not. So let’s not shut out the next great scholar, activist or author just because of a single misstep.