James Twitchell, plagiarist

Here are two passages.  See if you notice a similarity.

Passage 1:

This essay begins with Diderot sitting in his study bemused and melancholic. Somehow this study has undergone a transformation. It was once crowded, humble, chaotic and happy. It is now elegant, organized, beautifully appointed, and a little grim. Diderot suspects the cause of the transformation is his new dressing gown.  (McCracken, 1988)

Passage 2:

As he looked from his desk and glanced around his study, Diderot noticed that it had been transformed by mysterious forces. It was once crowded, humble, chaotic, and happy. Now it was elegant, organized, and a little grim. What happened?  [new para.] Diderdot suspected that the cause of the transformation was right before his eyes. It was a new dressing gown.  (Twitchell, 2002)

James Twitchell is a professor of literature at the University of Florida.  He is a prolific author.  He is also a plagiarist. 

The revelation of this behavior begins with Roy Rivenburg, former Los Angeles Times reporter.  Rivenburg discovered Twitchell had used his, Rivenburg’s, work as his own. 

A reporter for the Gainsville Sun, Jack Stripling picked up the story, and the results appeared Friday. 

It appears Twitchell has stolen widely and I am in distinguished company, including Rivenburg, Leslie Earnest, Peter Van Ham, Lance Morrow, Joseph Pine and Virginia Postrel.  (See Virginia’s post on this topic below.)

Twitchell claimed that passages borrowed for his book Shopping For God (2007) were only "little snippets" confined to a single chapter, the result of mere "sloppiness."

But "snippets" also appear in his 2002 book, Living It Up where he appears to have borrowed from a Harvard Business Review article by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, and a Reason article by Virginia Postrel.  Branded Nation (2004) has some too. (Stripling has a good review.  Link below.)

This was witting behavior.  Twitchell sent Postrel the manuscript of Living It Up to ask for a blurp.  She noticed Twitchell’s use of the  Diderot Effect and asked him to acknowledge me.  Twitchell did not.  According to Stripling, Twitchell claims that Diderot Effect "has become such common parlance in his area of study that he wasn’t even sure who coined it."  Really?  But his use of my exact words tells us he was acquainted with its origin.

According to Stripling, the University of Florida did not act with dispatch.

After Rivenburg made contact with Twitchell, Twitchell told his department chair about the problem. But Pamela Gilbert, the chairwoman, did not forward along the allegations to UF’s Office of Research to begin a misconduct investigation.

Simon & Schuster is not pulling books from the shelf, as they have done in other cases.  Adam Rothberg, spokesperson for Simon & Schuster, is promising correction for "the paperback edition."  I wonder if the threat of legal action by the offended authors might concentrate the editorial mind?

References

McCracken, Grant.  1988.  Diderot Unities and the Diderot Effective.  In Culture and Consumption I.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 118-129.

Postrel, Virginia.  2008.  If You’re Going to Steal My Prose, At Least Keep My Facts.  Dynamist Blog.  April 27, 2008. here.

Stripling, Jack.  UF professor Twitchell admits he plagiarized in several of his books.  Gainsville Sun.  April 25, 2008.  here.

11 thoughts on “James Twitchell, plagiarist”

  1. Wow. You know, at this point, I have taken course with both you and Twitchell. In fact, it was under Twitchell’s influence– in that he got me thinking about ways in which pop culture, advertising, etc. can be a legitimate topic for study beyond the strict Adorno-ish stuff that was going on the department at the time– that got me started on the path that led to CMS.

    This is really weird for me.

  2. One of the most galling aspects of my displacement from a textiles department into American Studies was attending the ASA meeting that fall and not only not being recognized for any of my publications on clothing and gender, but being asked — several times — if I had read a recent book by an American Studies scholar whose chapter on children’s clothing and gender had been clearly based on my work (even using the same illustrations), but who filed to cite or reference me in any way. Re-establishing my reputation in a new field would have a challenge under ordinary circumstances, but having to perform in the shadow of a “rising star” in the field made it even more difficult.

  3. Grant,

    Professor Twitchell has a place in my world as a definitional example for the Yiddish word “Chutzpah.” The classic definition is, of course, the man who is put on trial for the murder of his parents. He is found guilty and confesses, but then begs for mercy from the court since he’s an orphan.

    Here we have a fellow who has spent years making “small errors in note taking” such that his writings are filled with complete duplications of the works of others. His solution; he promises he won’t write any more books. What Chutzpah!

    Twitchell gives a new meaning to the term copywriter.

  4. Not that he doesn’t deserve this treatment, but I think Twitchell “hacked” and is not a hack.
    This may be a case where a smart guy gets lazy. The thing that bothers me is his initial
    approach to criticism and society being what it is seems not to have made any sort of
    impression on him or how he works.
    Of course you could say he was double-mirroring the present state of
    post modern criticism just to prove a point, but my guess is he’s running out of angles so he’s
    had to “borrow” to boost his ideas. All he had to do, particularly in
    his field, was paraphrase, footnote, and cite the passages he stole–which
    weren’t really juicy in the first place.
    And this guy used to make us play baseball with his dog on Saturdays. He even took a friend of mine and I
    to the Gator Nationals to make us real men. He was a guy we looked up to in high school.
    It’s really too bad, he deserves better than this and his field deserves much better than this.
    Oh well.

  5. “I wonder if the threat of legal action by the offended authors might concentrate the editorial mind?”

    IMO a good way to handle plagiarism would be a law that awards a plagiarized author either half or all of the royalties of the book. Of course this would be in addition to other sanctions.

  6. Wow. Wow U of Florida doesn’t seem to care. Wow Twitchell isn’t embarrassed. Wow academics do this. At least he was trading up (copying people whose work was worth stealing). Small consolation.

  7. Wow. Wow U of Florida doesn’t seem to care. Wow Twitchell isn’t embarrassed. Wow academics do this. At least he was trading up (copying people whose work was worth stealing). Small consolation.

  8. This is all very disappointing as I’ve enjoyed Twitchell’s work. He does have a tendency to recycle his own material–which it turns out isn’t necessarily his to begin with. The Diderot Effect actually makes appearances in at least three of his books, starting with Lead Us Into Temptation. A little Google Book sleuthing reveals that he basically copied and pasted the Diderot passages from book to book. The “good news” is that he finally did credit McCracken specifically in Branded Nation, though still hadn’t gotten around to enclosing the copied passages in quotation marks…

  9. An sampling of (more?) Twitchell Collage…

    Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America (1992),
    For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture (1997),
    Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism (1999)

    Well, Grant, I’m sure you enjoy the irony that Twitchell’s chased the dragon he purported to explain. Perhaps a suggestion for someone’s next book with a chapter on the “Professor” (footnoted of course): Edward Bernays, Andy Warhol, the fake Rolex and a padded resume: Why integrity is so 20th Century.

    I hope you get some old fashioned glove-across-the-face satisfaction someway, somehow.

  10. Peculiar: I was googling for a different Twitchell, another plagiarist actually, and found this. (The case of Paul Twitchell is fascinating in that there’s a religion built around the guy.)

    I find it remarkable that faculty regularly flunk undergrads for pulling stunts like this (I do), but certain of us are willing to do the same thing when it might be profitable to do so.

  11. Twitchell was always an obvious phony. When I was at UF, he also liked to hit on undergraduate females, but perhaps that’s another story….

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