Editor’s note: This is John Merrill’s response to the cancellation of his column in the Missourian.
After some 60 years of dedicated service to journalism and teaching, I must admit that I am almost traumatized by the recent tempest in a teapot incident related to what The Missourian editor has called my plagiarism. I have written and edited more than 30 books, articles for journals and newspapers, and a column in The Missourian for three years, and this is the first time I have been accused of plagiarism. The media have stressed the monolithic negative of the term “plagiarism” and have not attempted to consider ethical and semantic aspects of the story. So I am left in public view as a villain, a linguistic thief, or worse.
I was, undoubtedly, careless in not naming The Maneater, the MU student newspaper, as the news source from which I got the several direct quotes from Women’s and Gender Studies departmental spokespersons. These direct quotes I used to spin off into my column published Nov. 4. I did not lift any sentences or paragraphs from anybody else’s writing. I look on these short, directly quoted expressions from the two women in the news story as “news-facts” and see them as in the public domain. Certainly, if what I did is plagiarism, it was unintentional and could, at the most, be considered technical, not unethical.
I apologized at once, after Missourian editor Tom Warhover surprised me with his accusation, to the editor of the Maneater for my carelessness. I wanted to apologize in The Missourian and explain my actions. The editor of the Maneater, Steve Oslica, kindly responded with these words: “Thanks so much for your compliments and rest assured that your apologies are accepted. My current apologies on the loss of your column. I always enjoyed reading it and never thought that this all would be a consequence. ...”
It has been a real joy for me to write the column. It kept my 83-year-old mind active, and I enjoyed causing people to think about issues, smile a little and get a little peeved at times. And contrary to one story, I am not a professor at the School of Journalism; I “was” a professor at the School from 1964-80.
I will have to write a book on plagiarism, going into more sophisticated aspects of the term. I am a disciple of Alfred Korzybski and general semantics and think that terms such as “plagiarism” are really incapable of much meaning. Only stone-age literalists and reactionary linguists would grant the term any kind of absolute or monolithic meaning. In ethics I am a Kantian. As such, I will say that I would be perfectly willing to see all columnists in similar situations do exactly as I did in my disputed column. The Categorical Imperative, for me, is valuable as a moral guide. I accept Kant’s belief that a good will is the only surely good thing. My will or my motivation in this case causes me no reason to despair.
I will admit that I will miss writing my column. I had at least six or eight of them over at The Missourian waiting to be used. A few of them, I think, were especially good, especially one on the senselessness of war and the wastefulness of military spending, another on my dislike generally of dogs and another on some positive suggestions for naming Columbia alleys.
Those who know me know that I would not steal anyone else’s writing. First of all, I know it’s wrong, and secondly, I feel my own writing is probably much better. Anyway, in all this I have learned who are my friends, and I much appreciate the support I have received from a large number of faculty and townspeople. None, of course, from the Journalism School administration, nor did I really expect any.
If I have caused anybody in the Journalism School any embarrassment, I am sorry. I feel that I have done far more for the School through the years than the School has done for me.
John Merrill is a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.