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Plagiarism sins: Who you calling ‘strident’?


By Flickr user jobadge

Although some strident voices clamor for a zero-tolerance policy on plagiarism — termination at first blush — that is not the norm. (Telling the Truth and Nothing But)

The National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication, held during the recent annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, took care of the “fabrication” part quickly, without debate. No tolerance, no excuses. Fabulists are to be tossed out without mercy. Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the case with plagiarism. Panelists made a distinction between blatant and subtle theft that can’t stand up to moral judgment.

Norm Lewis of the University of Florida, whose doctoral dissertation was a primary source for the e-book written for the summit, said plagiarism is “not always our field’s worst offense.” He cited stories like the buildup to the war in Iraq as examples of things we should be more worried about.

Lewis (with whom I worked at the Washington Post and whom I like, respect and admire) seems to be drawing from a list of sins, ranked in some order of perversity. Really. It’s hard to imagine putting off dealing with a plagiarist because something big is happening. I oversimplify Norm’s argument, but that’s what it comes down to.

At the risk of seeming loud, harsh, grating, or shrill, I call for the death penalty in every case of plagiarism. “There are no mitigating circumstances for plagiarism,” Marcus Brauchli was quoted by Michael Calderone as saying when he was executive editor of the Washington Post, and he was right. (He nonetheless must have found such circumstances in at least two cases in which he “punished” plagiarists with three-month suspensions.)

The response to plagiarism should be simple: You get caught, you get fired. This rule is easy to understand and easy to enforce.

But at news organizations with written policies on plagiarism, it doesn’t seem to be so simple. Penalties can include “termination,” but lesser punishments are often imposed.

In March 2011, a Washington Post reporter lifted material from an Arizona newspaper and got caught. Sari Horwitz has Pulitzer Prizes on her résumé, so she wasn’t fired. She was suspended for three months.

In January of this year, another Post reporter, William Booth, got caught plagiarizing from a scholarly journal. He was apparently also suspended for three months, and it was suggested that as further punishment, he would be denied a plum foreign posting. But he still has a job.

Compare Horwitz and Booth with Michael J. Tobin, a reporter for the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth (Maine) Sentry. In February 2012, Tobin stole from stories in two competing newspapers. Not having any Pulitzers, he was fired almost immediately.

Then there are the plagiarists you never hear about: the ones whose thefts are discovered before publication. “Privacy concerns, due process and other legal considerations will make any organization cautious about labeling someone a thief when the material has not yet been published,” the plagiarism panel’s e-book says. But that warning seems to address the question of whether to publicize such a case. There is nothing to stop a news organization from booting a plagiarist regardless of when a transgression is discovered.

In 2006, I caught a reporter lifting his lede from a company website. I reported the transgression to the slot on duty, to the copy-desk chief, and then to the deputy department editor. I was asked to consult with the assigning editor, who asked the reporter to refashion the lede. I also consulted with the reporter, who offered no explanation.

I told the deputy that I thought the plagiarism was serious and required more than a rewrite, and was told firmly that it was none of my business.

The story was published with a new lede, although the writer loved the purloined copy so much, he insisted on using it deeper in the story, attributed to the website.

(I can’t provide more detail, because of my insider role in the case;  although I did not sign a nondisclosure agreement, I do have a sense of honor, even among thieves. Anyhow, naming names now could cause me trouble that I really don’t need. Readers will have to trust me on this. But the reporter knows I know, and I never forget. Perhaps I can tell more if and when the reporter is nailed for plagiarism that makes it into print.)

I resolved that the next time I found plagiarism, I would go directly to the executive editor and state firmly what had to be done. It never happened, but that’s my recommendation to any copy editor in a similar situation: Fully document the plagiarism and your role in finding it. Go directly to the top so minor managers don’t have the chance contain the repercussions. Do not threaten to leak the case to other media, although it can’t hurt to leave the impression that you might.

If no one else is going to play hardball, it’s up to us.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s bad career advice to suggest that impressionable young copy editors should leave the impression they might disclose internal issues to competing media. I agree with zero tolerance for plagiarists, but if I can’t trust an editor to handle confidential matters, I will replace that editor as quickly as the plagiarist.

  2. I don’t think a manager wants to be known as someone who fired a plagiarism whistle-blower, but I suppose I could be wrong. Anyhow, there are many degrees of subtlety necessary to pull off what I suggest. That might be too much to expect of an “impressionable young copy editor.”

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