For my book on failure, I thought a lot about what constitutes failure. One of the most interesting interviews I did was with Charles Bosk, a sociologist who has spent his career studying medical errors. Bosk did his first work with surgical residents, and his book divides the errors into different categories: technical errors (failures of skill or knowledge), judgment errors (failing to make the right decision in a difficult case), and normative errors. The last category includes not being prepared to discuss every facet of your patient’s case, and interestingly, trying to cover up one of the other kinds of error.
Surgeons, he said, view the first two kinds of errors as acceptable, indeed inevitable, during residency. You learn to do surgery by doing surgery, and in the early days, you’re going to make some mistakes. Of course, if you just can’t seem to acquire the manual skills needed to do surgery, then you may have to leave the program for another branch of medicine, but some level of technical and judgment error is expected from everyone. Normative error is different; it immediately raises the suspicion that you shouldn’t be a surgeon…
Plagiarism might actually fall into Bosk’s fourth category of error, the one I find most interesting: quasi-normative error. That’s when a resident does something that might be acceptable under the supervision of a different attending physician, but is forbidden by the attending physician he reports to. In the program he studied, if your attending physician did a procedure one way, that’s the way you had to do it, even if you thought some other surgeon’s way was better.
In other words, quasi-normative error is contextual. So with plagiarism. In college and in journalism, it’s absolutely wrong, because “don’t plagiarize” is — for good reason — in your job description. In most of the rest of corporate America, lifting copy from somewhere else might be illegal if the material is copyrighted, but in many situations, maybe even most situations, no one, including the folks from whom you are lifting the copy, will care. They certainly won’t care if you “self-plagiarize” (as Jonah Lehrer was also accused of doing), and I’m very thankful for that, because I wrote a lot of proposals for my company, and there are only so many original ways to describe a computer network. Yet I’d never copy and paste my own writing for Bloomberg without a link, a block quote and attribution.
All errors are not created equal yet I suspect all professional and academic fields could come up with similar lists. The third and fourth types of errors above seemed to be related to professional boundaries; how exactly are surgeons supposed to act, whether when in surgery or not? The first two are more linked to surgery themselves: could you make the right decision and execute the decision? Somewhat frustratingly, some of the same language might be used across fields yet be defined differently. Plagiarism in journalism will look different than it does it academic settings where the practice McArdle describes of “re-researching” a story and not making any attributions to the original researcher would not be good in a peer-reviewed article.