Malcolm Gladwell faces new charges of using others’ information without attribution.

This paragraph was plagiarized:

In the mid-nineteenth century, workers began digging through Hoosac Mountain, a massive impediment nearly five miles thick, for a rail line to connect Boston to the Hudson River. The project would cost more than ten times the budgeted estimate. If the people involved had known that, the line would not have been built and factories of northwestern Massachusetts wouldn’t have been able to ship their goods so easily to the expanding West. The cost of freight would have remained stubbornly high, and Massachusetts would have been immeasurably poorer. So is ignorance an impediment to progress or a precondition for it?

All of that information, and some of the exact language, come from Malcolm Gladwell‘s The Gift of Doubt, which appeared in The New Yorker on June 24, 2013.

But here’s the catch: That information also appeared in a 1952 paper by John E. Sawyer, “Entrepreneurial Error and Economic Growth,” according to a post by the anonymous media bloggers @blippoblappo and @crushingbort on their blog Our Bad Media. They find multiple examples in which Gladwell has used information from others without attribution, often in language that closely resembles the source. (@blippoblappo and @crushingbort have become known in large part for accusing the foreign affairs columnist and television reporter Fareed Zakaria of misusing others’ work.)

My opening paragraph, above, was plagiarized because I took it whole, with minor changes, from Gladwell’s article. I could have easily avoided plagiarism by using the information this way:

In the mid-nineteenth century, workers began digging through Hoosac Mountain, a “massive impediment nearly five miles thick,” for a rail line to connect Boston to the Hudson River, according to “The Gift of Doubt,” an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. Gladwell wrote that the project would cost more than ten times the budgeted estimate. If the people involved had known that, the line would not have been built and “the factories of northwestern Massachusetts wouldn’t have been able to ship their goods so easily to the expanding West.” The cost of freight would have been too high, and Massachusetts “would have been immeasurably poorer.” So, Gladwell asks: “Is ignorance an impediment to progress or a precondition for it?”

The question is, why didn’t Gladwell similarly include attribution–and a link–in his account? As @blippoblappo and @crushingbort write, “There’s no question that Gladwell lifted every piece of information on the Troy-Greenfield railroad from Sawyer. There’s no question that Gladwell didn’t mention either Sawyer (or Kirkland) in his piece. The only question is whether or not The New Yorker is willing to give its star writer The Gift of Doubt when it comes to his appropriation of others’ work.”

Here is one of the examples they cite:

Gladwell: “…it required tunnelling through Hoosac Mountain, a massive impediment, nearly five miles thick, that blocked passage between the Deerfield Valley and a tributary of the Hudson…James Hayward, one of New England’s leading railroad engineers, estimated that penetrating the Hoosac would cost, at most, a very manageable two million dollars.”

Sawyer: “…the route must pass through Hoosac Mountain, a barrier more than four miles thick standing at the head of Deerfield Valley…James Hayward, one of New England’s pioneer railroad engineers and now president of the Boston and Maine, concluded on the basis of existing costs, ‘I think two millions of dollars will be ample to tunnel the Hoosac.'”

Gladwell’s is clearly better; that’s one of the reasons he’s a star; he’s a very good writer. But his version is far too close to Sawyer’s to be used without attribution. (And as an aside, how did Sawyer’s “more than four miles thick” become Gladwell’s “nearly five miles thick”?)

Here’s another example, in which Gladwell, according to Our Bad Media, lifted information from Jeffrey S. Young’s 1988 biography of Steve Jobs without attribution:

Gladwell: Atkinson moved in as close as he could, his nose almost touching the screen. “Jobs was pacing around the room, acting up the whole time,” Tesler recalled. “He was very excited. Then, when he began seeing the things I could do onscreen, he watched for about a minute and started jumping around the room, shouting, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’ ”

Young: Atkinson was peering very closely at the screen, with his nose about two inches away from it, looking at everything very carefully,” remembers Tesler. “And Jobs was pacing around the room acting up the whole time. He was very excited. Then, when he began seeing the things I could do on-screen, he watched for about a minute and started jumping around the room, shouting. “Why aren’t you doing anything with this?? This is the greatest thing! This is revolutionary!’ “

There is one possible escape clause for Gladwell here–something that could absolve him of any guilt or plagiarism charge. Many journalists–especially magazine writers–have for decades subscribed to the idea that the use of established facts does not require attribution. If a writer were to say that President Obama issued an order changing immigration practices in the United States and another opening the door to closer relations with Cuba, the writer would not need attribution; these are established facts. That can also apply to facts dug up by a reporter that become widely disseminated. They “lose their authorship,” as it’s sometimes put.

But it’s hard to argue that Sawyer’s 1952 paper contains established, widely accepted facts. These are facts known to very few; maybe only to Sawyer. But what about the Steve Jobs anecdote? Is that widely known? @blippoblappo and @crushingbort searched and concluded that “at the time of Gladwell’s piece, Young was the only author using either Tesler’s quotes or the kimono line. The quotes had not ‘lost their authorship’ by means of wide dissemination.'” Yet Gladwell did not cite Young. When Walter Isaacson used the quote in a later biography, he cited Young, @blippoblappo and @crushingbort write.

I’ve long been troubled by the use of unattributed material with the excuse that it’s already been disseminated and established. When does the need for attribution fall away? Where do we draw the line?

I found an interesting answer in a document from the Imperial College of London called, “Supervising plagiarism by students.” It acknowledges that in any given field there are established facts that don’t need attribution, and such common knowledge should be “well known to all in a particular field; easily verified by consulting standard textbooks or encyclopaedias; and not disputed.”

The information lifted by Gladwell is clearly not known to all or easily verified. The escape clause that might have saved Gladwell does not apply.

In an email to Andrew Beaujon at Poynter, The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, acknowledged that drawing the line is tricky, but he stopped short of saying whether Gladwell had crossed it:

The issue is an ongoing editorial challenge known to writers and editors everywhere — to what extent should a piece of journalism, which doesn’t have the apparatus of academic footnotes, credit secondary sources? It’s an issue that can get complicated when there are many sources with overlapping information. There are cases where the details of an episode have passed into history and are widespread in the literature. There are cases that involve a unique source. We try to make judgments about source attribution with fairness and in good faith. But we don’t always get it right.

It seems pretty clear that in the case of Gladwell, Remnick got it wrong.

Last year, I wrote a post arguing it was time to stop believing Gladwell because of his misinterpretations of research. Now we have another reason to turn away from him. We can debate where the line falls between plagiarism and research, but we should all be able to agree that what he does is disrespectful to the journalists and authors who dug up the facts, and whose work should be recognized.

Gladwell’s treatment of them, whether legitimate or not, is not very nice.

-Paul Raeburn

7 Replies to “Malcolm Gladwell faces new charges of using others’ information without attribution.”

  1. Ellen

    Gladwell is just one example of a popular social science author whose books sell well because they make people feel like they’re experts in things they know nothing about. His understanding of economics is at best tragically incomplete, and I’ve always seen his books, books like his, and publications like the New Yorker as ways for dumb people to feel smart. Ridiculous oversights like this only confirm that for me.

  2. Peter Byrne

    Mr. Gladwell is a well-known shill for the neocon establishment, a group which includes the likes of Dick Cheney and Remnick. They all tend to treat facts as based upon personal preferences. I stopped reading The New Yorker years ago. It is quite irrelevant to the modern world. And often factually inaccurate.

  3. Boyce Rensberger

    Gladwell’s failures as a journalist are becoming so numerous and The New Yorker’s acceptance of them so lame that we may now judge the entire magazine by their gladwellian standards.

  4. Hank

    One other thing: attributed or unattributed, the opening graph contains very outdated basic assumptions about ‘progress’.

    I know that part of MA and I personally wish the whole project of connecting Boston and the Hudson had been stopped in its tracks.

    That project and related ones generated pollution you can still see in the rivers.

    The mills attracted tens of thousands of people to the area–even attracted immigrants–and then, a couple of generations later, the mills left, leaving behind a whole population of workers with no work to do and no skills to do anything else.

    Is this ‘progress’?

    Is it journalistic ‘progress’ that a modern journalist is unable or unwilling to do real research and falls back on sources that are so old that they could not in any sense represent ‘established’ fact from a modern point of view?

    Shame on you, New Yorker, for not vetting your stuff. And your writers.

    Hank

  5. Ferd Wulkan

    Gladwell writes a lot about the inverted-U curves in “David and Goliath”. I believe his writing is a good example of what he writes about – i.e. he peaked with “Blink” and it’s been downhill since.

  6. Matt Cutt

    Gladwell’s failures as a journalist are becoming so numerous and The New
    Yorker’s acceptance of them so lame that we may now judge the entire
    magazine by their gladwellian standards.

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