The Jane Goodall Book Scandal: Most Journalists Hold Back but One Doesn’t Shy Away from Criticizing a Beloved Public Figure

Jane Goodall reportedly plagiarized much of her new book, “Seeds of Hope” and, worse still, included quotes from an interview that the interviewee said he doesn't remember.

The coverage of the scandal was mostly deferential. The Washington Post broke the news in a story by Steven Levingston, who wrote that problems with the book came to the paper’s attention through a botanist commissioned to review it. A few other stories followed, and then at the Daily Beast, Michael Moynihan took an unsparing look at the book and at his fellow journalists for failing to state clearly what was wrong with it. (I believe this must be the same Michael Moynihan who pointed out Jonah Lehrer’s fabricated Bob Dylan quote.)

In the Post story, Levingston noted some passages that were nearly word for word identical to those from books, websites and  other sources. One substantial chunk of text was identical to one found on a website for organic tea, and another long passage on Philadelphia botanist John Bartram matched part of an entry in Wikipedia. He also noted that the book was co-authored by a writer named Gail Hudson. There’s much to be sorted out here, but it’s hard to see how either author, co-author or the publisher could escape blame.

The final example Levingston offers is particularly damning.  

Goodall concludes the story with a comment she says botanist Matt Daws made to her: “If seeds can survive that long in such poor conditions, then that’s good news for the ones that are stored under ideal conditions in the Millennium Seed Bank,’ Matt Daws said to me.”

Virtually the same quote from Daws appears on the Gardens Web site in a 2009 article with the headline “Plant story — 200 year old seeds spring to life”: “If seed can survive that long in poor conditions, then that’s good news for those in the Millennium Seed Bank stored under ideal conditions.” Asked in an e-mail whether he ever had a conversation with Goodall, Daws replied: “To be perfectly honest I have no recollection of speaking to her.”

Claiming to do an interview that never happened and making up a quote is hard to chalk up to some kind of innocent mistake. Could it be that Goodall, 78, is suffering from a failing memory?    

The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor and a website called “sorrywatch” also weighed in within the next couple of days.

Levingston still had some nice things to say:

In “Seeds of Hope,” Goodall has crafted a passionate narrative about plants, their effect on our lives and her desire to preserve the natural environment. Her first-person reflections are full of her well-known charm and humanitarianism. It is when the book moves away from Goodall’s own stories to deliver background information on plants and their history that the instances of borrowing creep in.

And he offered this qualification:

Appropriating another author’s ideas as one’s own and inventing material and presenting it as fact are among the gravest literary lapses. Neither appears to have occurred in “Seeds of Hope.”

This is a weird thing to say, since the examples seem to show that whoever wrote the book committed exactly those lapses listed.

And that was one of many strong points Michael Moynihan made in his Daily Beast story earlier this week, criticizing not just the book but the other journalists for these strange qualifications and the avoidance of the P word.  

His piece opened with this:  

Last Week famed primatologist Jane Goodall was found to have plagiarized parts of her new book, but a deeper look reveals a work plagued by rampant copying, obvious errors, and an ominous junk science.

Here he takes the other publications to task:

When the Post and the New York Times reported his findings, both avoided saying that Goodall had plagiarized—which, even by the strictest definition of the word, she did—instead writing that she “borrowed” passages, fully intending, apparently, to return them upon publication.

He didn’t seem to like the substance of the book as much as Levingston, calling it “a fluffy treatise on plant life.”

The last part of his piece criticized the scientific arguments the book made regarding the safety of genetically modified crops – the "junk science" referred to at the top. I don’t care for the term junk science because it’s too vague and too easy for people to slap on any scientific research when they don’t like the conclusion. When I hear the term all I know is someone is unhappy about it.

Still, Moynihan made a convincing case that Goodall didn’t investigate GMOs but merely cherry-picked material that backed her pre-conceived opinion that they are uniformly very bad. Much of her material, he wrote, came from several non-scientists associated with the Maharishi International University, founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This does not fill one with confidence.

It’s possible that Jane Goodall is so clueless about the nature of journalism and journalistic ethics that she didn’t realize there was anything wrong with the book. It may seem like common sense to most of us that you can’t just paste material without attribution, but there are brilliant achievers who lack common sense.

What I find weird is that the publishers and the co-author would let the manuscript go forward, whoever actually wrote the thing. Goodall is not an expert on plants or genetically modified crops and so when she starts stating facts without attribution, it should be obvious to anyone reading the book that she did not discover these things through her research. And she wasn’t born knowing them. She got them somewhere. Even if she didn’t copy the words she should have explained where she got her alleged facts.

Now the publication date has reportedly been pushed back to give Goodall time to fix her alledgly unintentional errors. In a way the whole premise is problematic – a book by a non-journalist with no expertise in the subject matter. Some scientists have proven to be good journalists, but you’d think the publisher would keep a close eye on her writing, in case she wasn’t one of those. Maybe the publishers thought that anybody can do journalism or maybe they thought Goodall was so smart she could do anything. Or maybe they didn’t think at all.

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