Dynamist Blog

If You're Going to Steal My Prose, At Least Keep My Facts

In his 2007 book Shopping for God by James Twitchell, an English professor at the University of Florida and a frequently quoted and much assigned observer of consumer culture wrote:

Whole Foods Market. Check out its fruit and vegetables: "724 produce varieties available today — 93 organic selections." Over in the cheese section, 14 types of feta alone. Go to Starbucks. Look at the menu. What's nonfat decaf iced vanilla latte all about? Forget food. Home Depot has more than 1,500 drawer pulls. Amazon.com gives every town a bookstore with 2 million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. The supplying of choice, needless choice, is everywhere, liberating to some, but to others a new source of stress.

During the last couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalized products, more varied experiences, and more choice.

This passage bears an uncanny resemblance to something I wrote two years earlier a June 2005 Reason article on the proliferation of consumer choice.

When customers enter the Ralphs supermarket near UCLA, they see a sign announcing how many different fruits and vegetables the produce department has on hand: "724 produce varieties available today," it says, including 93 organic selections....Over in the cheese section, this pretty run-of-the-mill supermarket offers 14 types of feta alone....

During the last couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalized products, more varied experiences, and more choice.

Average Americans order nonfat decaf iced vanilla lattes at Starbucks and choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at The Great Indoors. Amazon gives every town a bookstore with 2 million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. Choice is everywhere, liberating to some but to others a new source of stress.

It's scandalous that a tenured English professor would lift my prose--scandalous whether it was intentional theft or incompetent research. But it's particularly galling that he changed the passage just enough to make it inaccurate. Whole Foods doesn't sell non-organic produce, and Home Depot has nowhere close to 1,500 drawer pulls. I deliberately chose Ralphs because it is not a specialty store and The Great Indoors because it is. (The 1,500 drawer pulls also make an appearance in The Substance of Style, copyright 2003.)

I found out about this plagiarism in a February email from journalist Roy Rivenburg, who'd discovered it after stumbling over a similar borrowing of his own work. I didn't write anything on Twitchell's plagiarism problem back then because Jack Stripling of the Gainesville Sun was investigating further. His story is now out, and it's damning. An excerpt:

But in his 2002 book, "Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury," Twitchell uses more than "snippets" without attribution. Describing a trip he says he took to Las Vegas, he provides an elaborate description of Caesars Palace. Discussing a Roman-themed mall inside the hotel, a place he says is unlike "anything I have ever seen," Twitchell writes:

"It has marble floors, stark white pillars, hermetically sealed 'outdoor' cafes, living trees, flowing fountains, and even a painted blue sky with fluffy white clouds that burst into simulated storms, complete with lightning and thunder. Every entrance to the Forum Shops and every storefront is an elaborate re-creation of a Roman portal. Inside the main entrance animatronic statues of Caesar and other Roman luminaries come to life every hour and speak."

The description, which goes on further is patently similar to one provided by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, whose essay "Welcome to the Experience Economy" appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1998. Discussing the same mall decor as Twitchell, Pine and Gilmore say "these include marble floors, stark white pillars, 'outdoor' cafes, living trees, flowing fountains — and even a painted blue sky with fluffy white clouds that yield regularly to simulated storms, complete with lightning and thunder. Every mall entrance and every storefront is an elaborate Roman re-creation. Every hour inside the main entrance, statues of Caesar and other Roman luminaries come to life and speak."

At one point, Twitchell actually appears to be in a sort of conversation with the very authors from whom he's borrowed. While Pine and Gilmore say the mall's "theme implies opulence," Twitchell says "the theme doesn't imply opulence, it shouts it."

I was surprised at the extent of Twitchell's word-for-word copying, but I don't consider that his most egregious breach of ethics. Giving your readers inaccurate information because you've changed store names--to hide the source? to make a better story? just for fun?--is worse.

So is taking an original concept from another scholar and leading readers to think it's your own. As Stripling's article reports, I already knew he'd lifted an important idea without attribution from Grant McCracken and hadn't bothered to add a credit even after I called the "oversight" to his attention after reading the book's manuscript. Since that book was published, I've avoided Twitchell, deeming him a person of bad character, even though he is, generally speaking, an intellectual ally.

In an email forwarded to me by Stripling, Twitchell wrote, "I certainly remember Virginia Postrel calling this to my attention in the page proofs of "Living it Up" because I was a little shocked that she thought it was unique to McKracken [sic]." Anyone familiar with scholarly writing, as a tenured English professor should be, would know from the way Grant writes in Culture and Consumption (a heavily footnoted book) that "the Diderot Effect" is in fact his idea. The chapter title, "Diderot Unities and the Diderot Effect" is a big clue. So are the other scholarly books that cite McCracken as the source. Besides, as I discovered when I looked up the passages for Stripling, Twitchell borrowed Grant's prose as well as his concept. (Compare passages on Google books.)

Prompted by the Sun, the university has begun an investigation, but the University of Florida's English department seems to have had a rather ho-hum response to the plagiarism--you have to wonder if they're as lax with their students. Nor does it seem the newspaper's editors thought this local scandal worth much local attention. Stripling's story got stuck in the Saturday paper, which gets relatively few readers compared to Sunday. Maybe editors and universities have learned from Doris Kearns Goodwin that plagiarism is no big deal. These days, however, it is much harder to get away with.

CORRECTION: Several readers have corrected my claim above that Whole Foods doesn't sell non-organic produce. Grace Peng offers the most thorough correction:

Whole Foods sells some "conventionally grown" food, which I interpret as not organic.

They also sell "unsprayed" food, which I interpret as not sprayed with synthetic pesticides but containing synthetic fertilizers.

They also sell "transition" foods, which a friend says means grown organically on fields that used to be farmed conventionally. After 3 years, food grown on those fields can be certified organic.

She obviously shops at WF a lot more than I do.

UPDATE: More here.

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