Jane Goodall Endangers Reputation with Alleged Plagiarism

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As someone who works in conservation as well as journalism, this name is an incredibly sad one to add to the list of writers accused on plagiarism. We think of Jane Goodall as that benevolent, white-haired lady who lived with chimpanzees and has now devoted her remaining years to spreading awareness of endangered species everywhere. Of course, a great medium for consciousness-raising is the book, and Goodall has several. It is understandable if a scientist is not the world’s greatest literary talent, although Rachel Carson and fellow primatologist Dian Fossey come to mind as refutations. But they should be more than capable of ethical writing practices.

The accusation of plagiarism first was made in a roundabout fashion with her last book, of which a writer said, “it felt written by committee.” But with her new work, Seeds of Hope, the accusation is far stronger—there are scads of easy pointed out passages in the book that someone else wrote first, including, horrifyingly, a Wikipedia entry. WIKIPEDIA?

This controversy is notable not just for the person involved, but also, as Michael Moynihan of the Daily Beast pointed out, for the lack of attention it’s getting. Prior to running across his article on a Facebook feed, I had not heard of the accusation—and again, I work in conservation AND write a column about literary controversies. By contrast, when Wired writer Jonah Lehrer was caught making up Dylan quotes, the whole internet pointed and laughed for days. Granted, the Washington Post broke the Goodall story when errors and suspicious phrases in Seeds of Hope caught the eye of an alert reviewer (yay book reviewers!), and the Post is no small media outlet. But since then, well, according to Moynihan, the story has sunk.

Moynihan continues his excellent piece by listing examples of plagiarism and errors and making the equally troubling assertion that Goodall has been taken by junk science, but for me the article stops with the idea of Jane Goodall getting a pass. Both the Post and the New York Times, in Moynihan’s reading, stopped short of saying Goodall plagiarized, which to him, constitutes, “both a bizarre redefining of plagiarism and a semantic sleight of hand.” What, honestly, about this woman, (who I still have great respect for when it comes to primate knowledge—please tell me she didn’t make that up), means we drop our standards of journalistic integrity? Why did it take a book reviewer to notice oddities any decent publisher’s fact-checker could have picked up? The good news is that publication has been postponed to “fix the errors”. Goodall says she didn’t mean to improperly cite sources, and gosh, I hope that’s true.

We’ve seen the story happen again and again. Lehrer. Daisey. Blair. Glass. Readers, tell me, do you think the story is more about Goodall getting a pass or about yet another failure of the links of the veracity chain?

You know what they say…put enough monkeys in a room full of typewriters, and eventually one will start writing Shakespeare. In Jane Goodall’s opinion, is that considered plagiarism?

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