Is it plagiarism when you lift your own language, almost word for word, from a three-month-old column and use it again? If it is, then op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman is guilty of journalism's cardinal sin.
This morning's Friedman column, about the greening of China, includes almost an entire paragraph that's essentially identical to one he used in that piece.
From "Can I Clean Your Clock?" published on July 4, 2009:
Well, there is one thing we know about necessity: it is the mother of invention....And when China starts to do that in a big way — when it starts to develop solar, wind, batteries, nuclear and energy efficiency technologies on its low-cost platform — watch out. You won’t just be buying your toys from China. You’ll be buying your energy future from China.
From "The New Sputnik," published this morning:
What do we know about necessity? It is the mother of invention. And when China decides it has to go green out of necessity, watch out. You will not just be buying your toys from China. You will buy your next electric car, solar panels, batteries and energy-efficiency software from China.
We suppose it's possible that Friedman's mind produced the same sequence of words, the same constructions and the same ideas, revised only slightly to make his point this morning.
But we also think it's possible -- we'll even go so far as to say, likely -- that Friedman cut and pasted the paragraph from his previous column and tweaked it slightly for today's piece.
Given that Friedman only has to produce approximately 1600 words of prose a week to earn his substantial salary and prominent op-ed position, it strikes us as awfully lazy to hand his readers warmed-over ideas with near-verbatim language in the span of less than three months.
This should come as no surprise to regular Friedman readers, who've come to expect this sort of flagrant repetition from the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. His columns often repeat old rants and go back to recurring ideas, without much effort to deliver new points of view. To some extent, that's to be expected from a columnist with strongly-held opinions -- note Maureen Dowd's Sarah Palin obsession -- but even Dowd works to find clever new constructions to express the same points.
Self-plagiarism may not be unethical, exactly. Still, it's sad to see a writer of Friedman's caliber and prominence reveal just how little regard he has for his readers.