By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
We recently had a discussion on plagiarism, occasioned by this article from TNR on Chris Hedges and this response from Jane Hamsher. In this brief post, I’m going to try to avoid relitigating the fact set on that thread in favor of making some general observations on plagiarism — although others are free to do so — because I think plagiarism is an important issue. Tendentiously, I’m going to categorize people who believe that plagiarism is “no big deal” or, alternatively, justified as “pro-plagiarists,” since the outcome of their position is an increase in plagiarism.
At the outset, the question I would really like pro-plagiarists to answer is this: Is it OK with you if either I (lambert) or Yves start publishing other people’s material under our own names without attribution? Do you feel that Naked Capitalism, as a credible source, would suffer if we did? If in fact plagiarism is “no big deal” (or justified) that would come as a great relief to both of us, because coming up with original posts on a daily basis is inordinately stressful and very time-consuming!
That question posed, here’s a real-life example of “No big deal,” occasioned by disgraced New Yorker Gladwell wannabe Jonah Lehrer, on the occasion of his public apology (for which he was paid a retainer of $20,000 (!)):
What struck me the most [was] one of the questions posed by a conference attendee. She stated flippantly that Lehrer’s plagiarism affected her less than a “typo on Wikipedia,” and didn’t understand why people expected public apology for something that didn’t specifically hurt them.
(A Wired investigation 18 of Lehrer’s works showed that 17 had problems, 14 with recycling, 8 with plagiarism, and 8 with facts.)
And here’s an argument that plagiarism is justifiable:
I think this controversy shows how deeply the bourgeois notion of property has soaked into the mentality of today’s intelligentsia. Under such a mentality, our tribunes veto each other over a few shared phrases. It also shows the defects intrinsic to a Western “left” which is closely connected to an academic milieu. Within the merit-hierarchy of academe, plagiarism invalidates argument. But is that true in reality?
I think plagiarism is a big deal and isn’t justifiable; that it combines theft, fraud, and betrayal. Except there are three extenuating circumstances:
First, clearly at today’s Ivy League schools, especially for students destined for the C-suites in business, government, or the law theft, fraud, and betrayal are implicitly part of the curriculum; after all, we as a society could hardly have mastered the art of accounting control fraud without teaching the future perps the tricks of the trade. There’s no epidemic without carriers, after all.
Second, some cultures or subcultures simply don’t possess the concept. For example, American journalists in the Revolutionary War:
Without professional writing staffs of journalists or correspondents, eighteenth-century newspaper printers relied heavily on an intercolonial newspaper exchange system to fill their pages. Printers often copied entire paragraphs or columns directly from other newspapers and frequently without attribution. As a result, identical news reports often appeared in multiple papers throughout America. This news-swapping technique, and resulting plagiarism, helped spread the ideas of liberty and uphold the colonists’ resistance to British Parliament.
Or, closer to home, the Aghan intern at NPR, who plagiarized 68 words in his first published piece:
All agree that Shafi immediately responded matter-of-factly that he copied the lines. He didn’t see what the problem was. .. As he told me, “In Afghanistan, journalism, press freedom and ethical issues surrounding them are still being developed. Ten years ago there was literally no media except a Taliban radio.” hat we have here, then, is a cultural gap. Other experts in Afghanistan have confirmed to me that it is common practice among Afghan journalists and researchers to copy and paste material they think is accurate. … The rule is right, but the journalist first has to know the rule, and Shafi didn’t.
(Here’s a discussion of how the concept and practice of plagiarism varies by professional subculture.)
Finally, many times journalism is a collective work product. David Simon of The Baltimore Sun (and The Wire) writes:
On the police beat, on general assignment, and especially on the rewrite desk, you were usually reacting to new developments on stories that were ongoing for days or months. You would quickly marry the fresh stuff to what had already been reported, more often than not by other staffers. You relied on info from the newspaper library, working your way through old clips, changing a word or two, flipping a sentence with a dependent clause, or, if you needed to lift a large chunk, restructuring a few paragraphs.
Boilerplate, we called this stuff….
Given this history, there is behind me a trail of newsprint that includes tens of thousands of paragraphs cribbed from other Sun reporters or reconfirmed from other publications. Am I certain that in every instance I changed enough adjectives, flipped enough sentences, restructured enough paragraphs, and generally rewrote the background enough to avoid a charge of plagiarism? Do I have confidence that in re-reporting others I confirmed every single salient fact?
So I am a plagiarist. …. A lot of people need to be fired, apparently. There may be scribes confident of their day-after-day, year-after-year output, who are sure no paragraph they ever used as background is too similar to its source, who are certain that whenever they reworked another paper’s story every fact was reconfirmed. But there are others—many others—who … will privately admit unease.
Journalism is not scholarship. While reporting requires integrity and precision, it is not a world of footnotes, textual cites, and bibliographic acknowledgment, and the news report of any major daily is a communal property. It is accumulated edition-by-edition, day-by-day, through the labor of many. Working rewrite, if I caught a prison break in the mid-1980s, I cribbed background from Doug Struck, who covered that beat in the ’70s. On a political story, if I needed a clean, accurate explanation of the city Board of Estimates, I was grabbing that piece from Sandy Banisky. And if someone wanted a deadline definition of a semiautomatic weapon, they might have pulled it from my copy.
(However, I think we can agree that none of these three extenuating circumstances — elite schooling, different culture, or collective work product — apply in to the fact set for Chris Hedges.)
So, from bad to worse: theft, fraud, and betrayal. We’ll take these in the order that Dante did, placing them respectively in the Seventh and Tenth Zones of Circle Eight, and the Fourth Zone of Circle Nine in his Inferno.
The man behind Allen Total Media is A William “Bill” Allen, a would-be media mogul who has attracted scorn and ridicule from publishers in Pennsylvania for helping himself to other people’s reporting and and “consolidating” it under seemingly fake bylines on his websites.
Along with his Alaska gambit, Allen operates a website out of Greenville, Pa.: the Mercer County Free Press. He claims it’s the result of a consolidation of five regional papers into one offering.
It’s actually the latest Web address he calls home for his online operation, which inevitably features the same content mix: reprints of press releases from sources (see here/here), news stories lifted in whole from other local media (see here/here), news stories lifted verbatim from major wire services (see here/here), shorter items that appear to be rewritten from elsewhere, with typos added (See: “A Boli [sic] Alert Has Been Issued For Brookfield This Afternoon”), and the occasional joke/meme that makes its way around the Web.
Often, the lifted articles are given new bylines to suggest a staffer wrote them (giving it an added element of plagiarism), or carry the dubious credit “Shared Content.”
(We are so beyond the bounds of “fair use” here!) What harm does theft like this do? Richard Posner, writing on historian-plagiarists:
Because a footnote does not signal verbatim incorporation of material from the source footnoted, all that can be said in defense of the historians with whom I began is that they made it easier for their plagiarism to be discovered. This is relevant to how severely they should be criticized, because one of the reasons academic plagiarism is so strongly reprobated is that it is normally very difficult to detect. (In contrast, Eliot and Manet wanted their audience to recognize their borrowings.) … [T]hese are particularly grave forms of fraud, because they may lead the reader to take steps, such as giving the student a good grade or voting to promote the professor, that he would not take if he knew the truth. But readers of popular histories are not professional historians, and most don’t care a straw how original the historian is. The public wants a good read, a good show, and the fact that a book or a play may be the work of many hands—as, in truth, most art and entertainment are—is of no consequence to it. The harm is not to the reader but to those writers whose work does not glitter with stolen gold.
So, Posner suggests that the way to put matters right with those whose work has been stolen is to pay them (with “gold”), but there’s no harm to the reader. I’m not sure I agree. Posner’s strictures on the “the public” strike me as perilously close to the Straussian “noble lie.” For example, the common reader definitely “takes steps” based on popularized writing and journalism; that’s why propagandists use those tools. But suppose the public concludes that the thefts are not isolated incidents, but that all writers are stealing from each other? What would that do for the market for writers, or the process of writing? Nothing good.
(Note that the harm of theft was a big deal to the institutions that sought to shut Allen Total media down; note also that this harm occurs whether the work is private property or not; people can, after all, steal any kind of property, not just private.)
Editors at CNN were performing a regular spot check of content in the organization’s publishing queue last week when they discovered that a story by London bureau news editor Marie-Louise Gumuchian included material taken without attribution from another source.
Using plagiarism detection software, they quickly turned up more examples and in the end have so far found that Gumuchian plagiarized in roughly 50 articles.
CNN leadership announced their findings and her firing in an Editor’s Note published today….
“Most of what we found was [lifted] from Reuters, which she was previously employed by,” says a CNN source who asked not to be identified due to the fact that they were not cleared to speak publicly about the incident. “We also notified [Reuters]. She worked for us for about six months, so if we found that many in six months I can’t imagine the job Reuters has now.”
We could look at this example of plagiarism as a theft from Reuters. But it was also a fraud on CNN, since Gumuchian was paid for work she didn’t do. Both institutions were harmed, but other journalists were also harmed; as with Jonah Lehrer so with Marie-Louise Gumuchian. Rachel Does Science blogs:
One more thing. Jonah Lehrer’s behavior was offensive to me. Specifically me. Me, and every other young, emerging science journalist. Do you know how unobtainable a staff position at The New Yorker is, especially for a science writer, in the age of dying print and literary cutbacks? I would cut out my own kidney if it got me a regular blog on Wired, let alone a longterm print contract. The respect, stability, and readership attached to that gig is the sort of thing I’m afraid to even dream of. Jonah Lehrer got it, and he abused it. He recycled old pieces. He copy and pasted from others’ work. He didn’t provide the content he was being paid to provide.
I’m sure there were other journalists that CNN could have hired in Gumuchian’s place who would have played by the rules, exactly as there were writers The New Yorker could have hired instead of Lehrer. How would you like to be one of them?
(Note that the harm of fraud was a big deal not only to the defrauded CNN, but to Reuters, who had to go back to check over all of Gumuchian’s work. And the harm to Rachel Does Science occurs whether what kind of property Gumuchian appropriated.)
Finally, betrayal is “the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship amongst individuals, between organizations or between individuals and organizations.” Dante places betrayers in the bottom-most zone of the Ninth Circle: Judas, and backstabbers Cassius and Brutus. Here’s the example of Lehrer again:
Unlike recycling [see David Simon above], plagiarism and fabrication are fundamental betrayals of the reader’s trust. With plagiarism, an author tries to convince his audience that he has become conversant in a subject through journalistic research, processed that research, and distilled it by turning it into words on paper. Instead, a plagiarist merely takes someone’s thoughts or words and presents them as his own. … [P]lagiarism, betrays the reader—and betraying the reader is the cardinal sin in journalism.
(To be fair, there were mitigating circumstances; basically, the crapification of corporate journalism:
Lehrer’s transgressions are inexcusable—but I can’t help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I’m 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. And if someone violated journalistic ethics, it was more likely to be caught early in his career—allowing him the chance either to reform and recover or to slink off to another career without being humiliated on the national stage. No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.
The contrast between the shallow institutions of today and the deep institutional memories and practices described by David Simon is very telling and very sad.)
Steve Buttry writes:
Reporters who plagiarize and fabricate harm the credibility of honest reporters and of their whole paper and industry.
Gawd knows, what with Judy Miller — to be fair, a fabricator, not a plagiarist — and all the rest of ’em things are bad enough. But if the public concludes that everybody reporting, everybody with a public platform, is just repeating everybody else’s words in a gigantic game of telephone, how do we proceed as a democratic society? Even as a pre-figurative democratic society? We’ll have blinded ourselves. To me, that’s a big deal.
Suppose that in fact we as a society decide that plagiarism is “no big deal” and often justifiable. We’re going to get what we asked for:
It’s worth noting that there is some dispute over whether Lehrer was really a good science writer at all. And he had quite a professional advantage: if you don’t mind fabricating things and taking unethical shortcuts, it’s much easier to write a compelling story out of difficult material.
That’s a Gresham’s dynamic where bad writing drives out good; theft, fraud, and betrayal are faster and easier than real writing, and if we don’t ruthlessly root out plagiarism, plagiarism will predominate (and many plagiarists are serial offenders).
(If you don’t think a Gresham’s Dynamic is a big deal, talk to Bill Black; and note that a Gresham’s dynamic can apply with any form of property.)
 Here are some codes of ethics on plagiarism, and some definitions of plagiarism.
Seek Truth and Report It
Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
— Never plagiarize
Plagiarism: Journalists earn their living with words, and plagiarism — using someone else’s words as if they were your own — is, simply stated, stealing.
Respecting intellectual property rights is a foundational principle of the ACM’s Codes of Ethics. Plagiarism, in which one misrepresents ideas, words, computer codes or other creative expression as one’s own, is a clear violation of such ethical principles.
(3) Plagiarism means the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit. deas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.”
Finally, we should note that there are degrees of plagiarism. According to the IEEE:
The guidelines identify five levels of plagiarism, according to severity.
– Level 1 pertains to the uncredited verbatim copying of a full paper, or the verbatim copying of a major portion (>50%), or verbatim copying within more than one paper by the same author(s).
– Level 2 pertains to the uncredited verbatim copying of a large portion (between 20% and 50%) or verbatim copying within more than one paper by the same author(s).
– Level 3 pertains to the uncredited verbatim copying of individual elements (paragraph(s), sentence(s), illustration(s), etc.) resulting in a signi?cant portion (<20%) within a paper.
– Level 4 pertains to uncredited or improper paraphrasing of pages or paragraphs.
– Level 5 pertains to the credited verbatim copying of a major portion of a paper without clear delineation (e.g., quotes or indents).
The measures taken by IEEE against the author(s) depend on the severity level, and therefore it is very important that proof is provided enabling fair judgment of the case.
(Most of the examples cited in this post seem to fall into Levels 3, 4, and 5.)