Have you ever bought that line? I tend to have a... let's just call it skeptical response. My response is something of a "trilemma" reformulated from C.S. Lewis' own famous trilemma*: the author making that excuse is either a liar, an idiot... or a lying idiot.
*Lewis argues that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels is either a liar, a madman... or God.
Just now, though, I'm not excited about where that particular trilemma leaves me. Here's why:
This morning I went into the unruly drafts folder of my email account looking for a particular project. A draft from a month or so back caught my eye. Upon opening it, I saw two paragraphs that I wrote down for a blog post I never finished. As I reread those paragraphs, I tried to remember why I hadn't ever finished the post--these were (I thought with a touch of self-regard) well-crafted and thoughtful paragraphs.
Those paragraphs were responding to an essay, and as I tried to recall the essay in question I realized with a start that this is that essay. This was not my own writing. I was looking instead at a draft of an email I'd intended to send to a coworker: a short excerpt that was supposed to be paired with a link to the essay. But I'd been interrupted before I could finish the email and had forgotten about it. Those two unattributed paragraphs sat in my drafts folder innocuously for a couple months, and when I returned to them, I somehow managed to believe they were my own written work.
So where does that leave me with my plagiarist's trilemma? Well, since it doesn't make me a liar or a lying idiot, my own trilmma convicts me of pure, unadulterated idiocy.
Or, perhaps, I ought to extend a little more charity--and a little less presumption--in my judgments of accused plagiarists.
I can't imagine that I would ever have gotten to the point of publishing those paragraphs while still thinking it was my own prose. After all, the entire span of time from opening the draft to realizing my mistake could not have been more than a couple minutes. But I also have to recognize that, in the first place, the draft was only a couple months old. Had it been a year old, I might very well have never realized my mistake. And, secondly, I do not write all that much. Those two paragraphs were not sitting amidst reams of my own written material.
In other words, had I been looking at stray notes from a book-length project--the kind that might cover years of research--it seems to me highly possible that those two paragraphs could have slipped into that project without citation or attribution. Nor does it seem totally unrealistic that larger or multiple sections of unoriginal material could be unintentionally plagiarized due to sloppy notetaking.
Anyone who writes cannot be reminded of this too often: it is essential to use care and attentiveness in the use of sources and citations. When taking notes on a source, make explicitly clear the differences between and among direct quotations, paraphrases of the text, and your own thoughts or responses to it. Your reputation and your reliability depend upon it.
Lastly, I've been reminded of the demands of charity. Charity requires us to resist the satisfying urge to excorciate others for their mistakes, and charity calls us to presume the best rather than assume the worst in others.