A Note to Readers

CityLab recently discovered a case of plagiarism in an essay we published on December 7, 2012, when the site was then known as The Atlantic Cities.

The essay, written by freelance contributor Jared Keller and titled “Riding the Subway as Therapy”, had been adapted from a piece that originally ran on Keller’s personal website. The version that ran on our site includes a passage that was lifted from a 2009 Slate story written by Tom Vanderbilt.

For the sake of clarity, below is a highlighted section from Vanderbilt’s 2009 piece:

Although subway studies had their heyday in the '70s, they're as old as public transit itself. The seminal urban sociologist Georg Simmel, in a famous passage from his 1912 volume Mélanges de Philosophie Relativiste, was struck by the new spatial and sensorial regimen that transit provided. "Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another."

By 1971, Erving Goffman, in his book Relations in Public, was noting that a ritual of what he called "civil inattention" had taken hold on the subway as in other spheres of city life: We acknowledge another person's presence, but not enough to make them "a target of special curiosity or design." Or, as the authors of the essay "Subway Behavior," (in the book People and Places: Sociology of the Familiar) put it, "subway behavior is regulated by certain societal rules and regulations that serve to protect personal rights and to sustain proper social distance between unacquainted people who are temporarily placed together in unfocused and focused interaction."

And this is the passage in question from Keller’s 2012 CityLab/The Atlantic Cities essay:

Public transportation is an inherently contradictory experience. You insert yourself into a highly public, perpetually crowded environment and immediately retreat into the privacy of your own interior world. German sociologist Georg Simmel, in a famous passage from his 1912 volume Mélanges de Philosophie Relativiste, was struck by the new spatial and sensorial regimen that transit provided:

“Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another. The result is an odd form of salutory neglect, an unspoken agreement to i/gnore those with whom we’re forced to share the same crowded space.”

Sociologist Erving Goffman called it "civil inattention" in his 1971 book Relations in Public.

Keller actually directly references Vanderbilt's piece later in the essay, but ultimately the essay fails to clearly cite and acknowledge Vanderbilt's work as the source of these references and phrases.

I’ll also add that I personally spot-checked this piece, the only one Keller ever wrote for CityLab/The Atlantic Cities, shortly after allegations of a pattern of plagiarism in his work for Mic.com surfaced a year ago. Even so, I failed to catch the problem until now.

CityLab regrets this lapse, and extends our sincere apologies to Vanderbilt and to you, our readers.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. She writes about the intersection of technology and consumer habits, and lives in Washington, D.C.