When news broke that primatologist Jane Goodall’s new book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, contained plagiarized material, Susan and I both felt sick. We’ve both worked as “co-writers” on well-known people’s books. (Susan’s was a best-selling animal behavior book, even!) Our greatest professional fear is accidentally plagiarizing something because of crappy note-taking and lack of follow-up. “I try to be so so careful never to let anyone else’s text in my drafts and notes without quotation marks or other glaring evidence that it isn’t mine,” Susan told me as we shared mutual Cathy-like ACK ACKs over email. “For a ghost or co-writing gig it’s much harder because you are channeling another voice, so you’re not protected by the I-wouldn’t-say-it-that-way reflex,” Susan reflected. Yup.
Goodall’s cowriter is named Gail Hudson — the two have worked together on a number of books. According to one of her online bios, Hudson has written for Self, Child, Parents, Utne Reader and Good Housekeeping (OMG ME TOO ALL OF THOSE); according to another, she’s the former spirituality editor at Amazon. She’s also edited a book about parenting teenagers. (The thought of explaining a situation like this to my kids makes me queasy — when you spend years talking to kids about ethical behavior, how do you tell them you plagiarized?)
Goodall and Hudson’s book apparently contains at least a dozen instances of passages from other sources, used without attribution. Many are from Wikipedia. One was from an un-bylined online article about astrology, another from the web site of Choice Organic Teas, which sells fair-trade, sustainable products and donates part of its proceeds to the Jane Goodall Institute. A quote by a botanist at the Kew Botanical Gardens, about seed preservation, apparently came from the web site of the Botanical Gardens.
“This was a long and well researched book,” Goodall wrote to the Post, “and I am distressed to discover that some of the excellent and valuable sources were not properly cited, and I want to express my sincere apologies. I hope it is obvious that my only objective was to learn as much as I could so that I could provide straightforward factual information distilled from a wide range of reliable sources.”
Ordinarily SorryWatch would call Goodall out for a failure to take ownership of her mistake. “Distressed to discover”? “Were not properly cited”? Where are the “I” statements?
In this case, though, the missing I makes sense.
Odds are that Goodall wrote very little (or even none) of the book. She perhaps talked extensively with her co-author about what she wanted to say. She may have suggested many anecdotes to include. Regardless, she’s almost certainly not up to speed on what the problems with the book are, because she didn’t choose the words or all the sources. So she’s promising to address the problems with the book soon, on her blog, in more detail. This makes sense.
As for the co-author and her silence so far, I’m betting her contract is a lot like mine: There are probably lines like “Author will be the book’s primary spokesperson” (in the contract, Author is the famous person and Writer is the book’s writer). So Hudson’s got to be careful of anything she says, even in self-defense. The contract probably has legal-language-filled paragraphs like “Writer warrants that work is original and does not invade any right of privacy nor infringe any statutory or common law copyright; Writer agrees to indemnify Author and hold Author harmless from and against any and all claims of libel or of copyright infringement arising out of material created by Writer in the Work.” So now Writer may be, as the colloquialism has it, shitting a brick about getting sued by the publisher. My contracts also usually say that all information having to do with the writing of the book is “proprietary and confidential, and Writer agrees to keep Confidential Information in strict confidence, not to directly or indirectly disclose it to others, or use it in any way except for purposes of writing the Manuscript.” So the co-author can’t say jack — including an apology — about this whole situation unless Goodall says she can.
We don’t know for sure that any of this is the co-author’s fault, though it sure seems likely. We do know that technology today, with its multiple windows and zippy cutting-and-pasting, makes accidental and on-purpose appropriation terrifyingly easy. We know that many young peoples do not see lifting from Wikipedia as plagiarizing, since it’s a public resource. (They’re wrong.)
Hudson is old enough that it’s unlikely she thinks this way. But she didn’t commit the most hellacious sin associated with plagiarism — she didn’t pass off other people’s ideas as her own. She took factoids and quotations (keeping them in the mouths of the people who originally said them, though not offering up the sources who originally interviewed them). She didn’t make up quotations or study findings, like that little weasel Jonah Lehrer. (Can I just inappropriately insert here that I found another example of lying in his work when I looked up a study he cited for a piece I was writing on a related subject? The study totally did not say what he said it said. And this example wasn’t in anyone else’s list of the things he made up/recycled/misattributed/lied about. I hate that guy.)
The factchecker is an artifact. Newsweek eliminated its entire, vaunted, department. Factcheckers for women’s magazines make sure you spell everyone’s name right, but have no interest in whether the study you’re citing is terribly designed or has any scientific validity or hilariously naked conflicts of interest. Book publishers (and newspapers!) mostly lack factcheckers entirely. The writer (or in this case, Writer) is thrown to the wolves and all the editors and publishers say they are shocked, shocked. But it’s their fault the system’s broken.
So I’m going off on a tangent (what else is new) but my point is: I hope Goodall’s good works aren’t overshadowed by this incident, and I hope Hudson’s career isn’t toast. Elizabeth Wurtzel, Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ruth Shalit, Stephen Ambrose and other writers have bounced back from accusations of plagiarism or quote-invention. Stealing isn’t OK. But here we seem to have an issue of laziness or carelessness rather than deliberate deception. Goodall’s apology is a start (we’ll see what happens on her blog, and let you know) and I respect the desire to check in with and perhaps protect her colleague before going off half-cocked. She can’t own the apology yet because she’s not willing to throw either herself (pretending she actually wrote the thing) or Hudson under the bus. I respect the latter. If apologizing is an ethical act, sometimes waiting is too.
UPDATE, 3/25: According to the Los Angeles Times, Goodall and her publisher Grand Central have announced that they’re delaying publication of the book to give them time to correct “any unintentional errors.”