But could some alleged plagiarists—like Maureen Dowd, Chris Anderson, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, and even Viswanathan, who all either deny the charge, or blame their copying on unconscious mistakes—be guilty of psychological sloppiness rather than fraud? Could the real offense be disregard for the mind's subliminal kleptomania? And if it is real, is unconscious copying (or "cryptomnesia" to those who study the phenomenon) preventable? Or, seeing as Nietzsche ripped off a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra from something he'd read as a child, and former Beatle George Harrison was found guilty, in court, of unconsciously copying the music for his hit song, "My Sweet Lord"—is cryptomnesia both unavoidable, and the perfect excuse?
"Clearly all of us, referring to journalists, probably appropriate phrases or ideas, on occasion, without realizing it," said Howard Schneider, dean of the School of Journalism at New York's Stony Brook University, and former Newsday editor. But intent and degree count, he said, and journalists should be held to a particularly high standard when it comes to plagiarism. Schneider, who helped set up the News Literacy Center at Stony Brook, teaches his students about the brain's susceptibility to certain psychological pitfalls, such as: seeing a political commercial between TV newscasts, and then a week later attributing the information in the commercial to the newscast itself. He believes that journalists are susceptible to similar influences.
According to Richard L. Marsh, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Georgia and a leading cryptomnesia researcher, Schneider is on the right track. "When people engage in creative activity, they are so involved in generating or coming up with something new or novel that they fail to protect against what they previously experienced," said Marsh. Over the last 20 years, Marsh has designed numerous models for studying cryptomnesia in the lab. An early study involved asking subjects to work with an unseen "partner" (actually a computer) to find unique words in a square array of letters, similar to the game Boggle. A short while after completing this task, the researchers asked each participant to recall the words they had personally found, and to generate new words neither the participant nor the participant's partner had previously been able to find.
The subjects plagiarized their partners roughly 32 percent of the time when trying to recall their own words, and up to 28 percent of the time when attempting to find previously unidentified words in the puzzle. Not only was plagiarism rampant, many subjects who plagiarized also checked a box indicating they were "positive" their answers had not previously been given by their partners.