Bill Poser argues that “citation plagiarism is not plagiarism at all” but I disagree. True, if we are just talking about one citation it doesn’t really matter much if the author just skimmed through something on a colleague’s shelf or truly slaved over a difficult tome. But that is not what is at stake in the Finkelstein-Dershowitz dispute. Here is a summary of Finkelstein’s position on Dershowitz:
Finkelstein’s principal response is that Dershowitz’s quotations and citations of primary sources (where Dershowitz does not cite Peters) contain obvious errors that Dershowitz could not have made if he had checked the primary sources himself, and that Dershowitz’s errors are identical to Peters’ errors concerning the same primary sources. (Beyond Chutzpah, pp. 230-231) Finkelstein infers that Dershowitz copied the quotations and citations from Peters rather than checking the primary sources himself.
This is one of the most common forms of plagiarism I encounter as a teacher. Plagiarism is passing off other’s scholarship as if it were your own, and nothing is easier than to extensively cite sources you have never read but found cited in another person’s work. Thus, it is not the mere fact of citation that is at stake, as Poser mistakenly infers, but rather the wholesale appropriation of another scholar’s academic labor, warts and all.
However, even if we discuss the kind of practice Poser does find acceptable, where someone simply lists a source they know is important even though they have not read it carefully themselves – I still must beg to differ. For one thing, it is the source of much intellectual laziness. People cite the works of major thinkers without bothering to read more than someone else’s summary of their ideas, and the ideas themselves get diluted to the point where they no longer serve any analytic value. (Mere hand-waving, if you will.) The problem is that it isn’t enough to cite Bourdieu if you mention “habitus” or to cite Appadurai if you mention “ethnoscapes” etc., these ideas are overdetermined (cf. Althusser) and require each scholar who uses them to explain again what exactly they mean by the term. Instead, we get one-line critiques or pat summaries with an obligatory citation. Of course, if this were a crime the anthropology job market would be much better than it is.
I think this problem is particularly acute when people are working with second-language materials. Among Taiwanese students (and foreign scholars of Taiwan) it is not uncommon to list a lot of sources which you have not personally read. This serves to convey a much stronger grasp of the target language than the student may really have. In such cases there is still a wide range of practices, ranging from the full-scale copying of someone-else’s quotations to simply mentioning important sources, and I agree with Poser that these shouldn’t all be treated the same. Still, just as I think bloggers should give credit where credit is due when linking to an article they found on someone else’s blog (e.g. “hat tip to X”, “via X”, etc.) scholars should also endeavor to identify where they found citations if they are not works they themselves personally read (e.g. “Y cited in X”).
UPDATE: Some good discussion over at Easily Distracted.