Newton’s shoulders Blair Hornstine, who

Newton’s shoulders
Blair Hornstine, who successfully sued to be sole valedictorian of her New Jersey high school, plagiarized words and ideas used in five articles and essays in her local newspaper. The Courier-Post published a correction along with a pompous non-apology by Hornstine. Or, at least, under her name.

If I see further,” wrote scientist Isaac Newton to his colleague Robert Hooke, “it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

This statement, meant to suggest that Newton’s achievement had been predicated upon the discoveries and findings of his predecessors, underscores a fundamental academic truism that remains true even in our time. All knowledge is constructed upon scholarship bequeathed to us by past generations. Newton’s statement, therefore, captures the very essence of academia, and it simultaneously highlights an often-overlooked, sometimes invisible, but tremendously significant part of scholarly research: the footnote.

The girl didn’t fail to attribute. It’s not about footnotes. She plagiarized. It doesn’t take training in journalism to know you’re not supposed to copy sentences and paragraphs from other people’s work.

A Nov. 26, 2002 Thanksgiving column lifts the first paragraph, word for word, from a Christian Teacher’s Aid web site.

The fourth Thursday of November historically is set aside to thank God for his many blessings to our nation — a place of diversity, freedom and hope for people who have lived here many generations or for those who recently arrived to our shores.

The last third of her piece is stolen from President Clinton’s Thanksgiving proclamation of 2000:

At Thanksgiving this year, Americans must carry on that tradition of sharing not only with family and friends but also with those in need throughout their communities. Every generation of Americans has benefited from the generosity, talents, efforts and contributions of their fellow citizens. All of us have been enriched by the diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs of the millions of people who, by birth or by choice, have come to call America their home.

All of us are beneficiaries of our founders’ wisdom and of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. While Americans are an independent people, we are interdependent as well, and our greatest achievements are those we have accomplished together. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us remember with gratitude that, despite our differences, each of us is a member of a larger American family and that, working together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage all of you to assemble in your communities and places of worship to share the spirit of goodwill and prayer; to express heartfelt gratitude for the blessings of life; and to reach out in friendship to our brothers and sisters in our larger family — humankind.

That’s all from Clinton’s speech. Hornstine cut a few phrases — “this promising new century” probably sounded odd in 2002 — and the proclamation part.

Harvard could withdraw her acceptance for plagiarism, as Kim Swygert points out. Poetic justice, to coin a phrase. None of this would have come out if Hornstine hadn’t made such a fuss about sharing valedictorian honors. Someone got mad and got even.

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