All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .—John Donne
love and theft
Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.
The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?
“When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” The line comes from Don Siegel’s 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach’s blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel’s long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth — to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience — in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into “Absolutely Sweet Marie”? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?
Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan’s music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan’s songs. Lott’s title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg — a series of nested references to Dylan’s own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan’s newest record, Modern Times. Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.
The same might be said of all art. I realized this forcefully when one day I went looking for the John Donne passage quoted above. I know the lines, I confess, not from a college course but from the movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. I checked out 84, Charing Cross Road from the library in the hope of finding the Donne passage, but it wasn’t in the book. It’s alluded to in the play that was adapted from the book, but it isn’t reprinted. So I rented the movie again, and there was the passage, read in voice-over by Anthony Hopkins but without attribution. Unfortunately, the line was also abridged so that, when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “all mankind is of one volume” instead of “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”
My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. I had thought that summoning books from the vasty deep was a matter of a few keystrokes, but when I visited the website of the Yale library, I found that most of its books don’t yet exist as computer text. As a last-ditch effort I searched the seemingly more obscure phrase “every chapter must be so translated.” The passage I wanted finally came to me, as it turns out, not as part of a scholarly library collection but simply because someone who loves Donne had posted it on his homepage. The lines I sought were from Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which happens to be the most famous thing Donne ever wrote, containing as it does the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My search had led me from a movie to a book to a play to a website and back to a book. Then again, those words may be as famous as they are only because Hemingway lifted them for his book title.
Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.
More from Jonathan Lethem:
WIKIMEDIA, GEORGY90Two journals appear to be involved in plagiarizing scientific articles that have been published elsewhere. In one case, a publisher called Science Reuters—which puts out the journal Pharmacologia—listed papers from PLOS journals and elsewhere in the table of contents of numerous issues of its Science Reuters journal. Another publisher, Insight Knowledge, also published parts of papers in Insight Biomedical Science that appeared in PLOS ONE and the African Journal of Biochemistry Research. Researchers whose papers were in Science Reuters's table of contents say they had no idea their work was being used by the journal.
“That is distressing, because we've never submitted an article to Science Reuters,” said Mark Johnson, an associate professor at Brown University. “I'm not even aware that Science Reuters is a journal.”
Subha Ganguly, the editor-in-chief of Science Reuters, which is not affiliated with the news organization Reuters, resigned his position a mere day after being contacted by this reporter about the re-published titles. Ganguly, a researcher at West Bengal University of Animal and Fishery Sciences in Kolkata, India, said he was unaware that Science Reuters was using other journals' papers as its own. “After hearing from you about all such irregularities in publication from the Science Reuters editorial office, I am withdrawing my name permanently from the position of editor-in-chief for the 'Science Reuters' journal magazine,” Ganguly wrote in an email to The Scientist.
No one responded to messages sent to general email addresses at Science Reuters and Pharmacologia.
It's unclear whether Science Reuters ever actually published the plagiarized papers or simply listed them on their website.
Most of the republished articles came from various PLOS publications, which publish under the Creative Commons Attribution License, in which others can use the work, as long as the authors and source are cited. There is no mention of PLOS in the Science Reuters tables of contents.
Insight Biomedical Science, which shares a physical address with Science Reuters and is published by Insight Knowledge, also published research that has appeared in other journals. A paper from its 2012 issue appeared in the open-access African Journal of Biochemistry Research, while another paper appeared in part in PLOS ONE.
After an inquiry from The Scientist, Insight Biomedical Science posted on its website that the plagiarized papers have been withdrawn (although as of publication, the PDFs of these papers are still available). It's unclear what role the authors and the publisher played in the plagiarism at Insight Biomedical Science.
When questioned about the re-published papers, Sherri Dow, a support liaison for authors, editors and reviewers at Insight Knowledge, wrote in an email: “We reproduced mentioned articles in the journal just to circulate it around the world. Because these papers are published on the basis of Open Access. But we also mentioned the original source of the papers.” (Again, no mention of PLOS or the African Journal of Biochemistry Research appears on the site.)
Masoud Ghorbani at the Pasteur Institute of Iran and his colleagues authored both of the plagiarized papers. In an email to The Scientist, Ghorbani said that his colleague had initially attempted to publish the research studies in Insight Biomedical Science. But after not hearing from the journal for 2 months, they assumed the papers were not accepted and they published their work elsewhere. “We tried to communicate with them for withdrawal or even corrections, revisions, or anything else, we got no response,” said Ghorbani. “We were not aware of publishing the paper in [Insight Biomedical Science] until recent notices.”
The Scientist reached out to several of the listed editorial board members of Insight Biomedical Science, but all of them were unaware of their participation. “Thank you for alerting me to the fact that a journal I was not aware of has my name on their website as a member of the editorial board,” said Rosemary Bass, senior lecturer at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne in the U.K., in an email to The Scientist. “I will be instructing them to remove my name, and as I am not a member of their board do not have any insight into their practices.”
Hany Lashen, a clinical senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, echoed Bass’s sentiment. “I am not aware that I am on their editorial board and cannot remember agreeing to be there,” he said. Coincidentally, Lashen was asked to be on the board only after The Scientist had begun its investigation of Insight's publishing practices. He said he will decline the invitation.
After The Scientist emailed Insight Knowledge about the papers by Ghorbani, it deleted its list of editorial board members.
In a statement emailed to The Scientist regarding the suspect journals, PLOS said that “the lack of attribution is concerning.” David Knutson, a spokesman for PLOS, said over the phone that such widespread misuse of its articles is “pretty rare.” Knutson added that PLOS's general council is sending a letter to the publishers expressing their displeasure and also attempting to contact the journal authors.
Johnson Lin, the editor of the African Journal of Biochemistry Research and a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said his journal is conducting an investigation to determine whether the authors knowingly published in two places. “If so, this article will be retracted from [our] journal,” he said.
Another journal, called Pharmacologia, put out by the publisher of Science Reuters has published original research. Rolf Craven, a cancer researcher at the University of Kentucky, published work on the DAP1p family of proteins in the yeast Candida albicans in 2012. “The experience was totally standard for a low impact journal,” he said. He added that Pharmacologia appealed to him because it was free to publish. Craven said that the reviewers' comments clearly came from experts in the field. His only complaint was that the paper was not indexed in Medline, and therefore does not get cited.
Björn Bauer, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, has been a member of Pharmacologia's editorial board since 2011, and he said his impression of the journal is “fishy at best.” His only involvement was fielding a complaint from a researcher who tried to submit a paper. “I've never received anything to review for them,” Bauer said. “I already thought [before The Scientist's request for an interview] that I'm some sort of an alibi for some sort of a strange thing that I don't understand.” Bauer said he'd like to remove his name from the editorial board, “but I doubt I would even get a response from them.”
Jeffrey Beall, a University of Colorado Denver librarian who maintains a compilation of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” has included Insight Knowledge on his list. “To become a scholarly publisher, all you need now is a computer, a website, and the ability to create unique journal titles,” Beall wrote in 2012 article in The Scientist. Science Reuters and Pharmacologia are not, as yet, included on Beall's list.
This story is still developing. Check www.the-scientist.com for updates.