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Plagiarism 101

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February 15, 2010

There has been plenty of excitement recently concerning the resignation of Gerald Posner from The Daily Beast as a result of a plagiarism scandal.  Here’s how Posner described it in his own words:

Last Friday, Jack Shafer in Slate ran an article pinpointing five sentences from one of my stories in The Daily Beast, which I admitted met the definition of plagiarism and I accepted full responsibility for that error, an incident I called “accidental plagiarism.”  On Monday, he had found other examples, and although I disagreed with some of his characterizations, I again accepted full accountability.

When The Daily Beast had asked me last Friday if there were any more problems than the five original sentences highlighted by Shafer, I had confidently told them, “No.”  It was not because I had subjected my own articles to so-called plagiarism software, or because I was in denial about any deliberate plagiarism.

*   *   *

This afternoon I received a call from Edward Felsenthal, the excellent managing editor of The Daily Beast.  He informed me that as part of the Beast’s internal investigation, they had uncovered more instances in earlier articles of mine in which there the same problems of apparent plagiarism as the ones originally brought to life last Friday by Shafer.  I instantly offered my resignation and Edward accepted.

This event created quite a stir in the blogosphere, where plagiarism is commonplace.  Although most bloggers follow the “fair use” standard, which allows for quoting a limited portion of published material only when identifying the original publisher of that material (attribution), a good number of bloggers are more than sloppy about it.  In the case of the Associated Press, they don’t want you quoting anything.  This is due to the nature of their business model.  There is no single publication called “The Associated Press” nor is there any single Associated Press website that runs all of its stories.  The AP makes its money by selling its stories to media outlets for republication under an AP byline.  I recently adopted a policy of simply pointing out that “Jane Doe did a story for the Associated Press concerning XYZ” with a link to the story.

Gerald Posner admitted that Jack Shafer of Slate exposed what Posner described as “accidental plagiarism”.   On February 11, Shafer responded by presenting an argument that Posner is a “serial plagiarist”.  Shafer went on to explain how plagiarism not only causes harm to the author of the poached writing — it also causes harm to the readers:

In an essay published by Media Ethics (fall 2006), Edward Wasserman attacks the wrong of plagiarism at its roots.  Most everybody concedes that plagiarism harms plagiarized writers by denying them due credit for original work.  But Wasserman delineates the harm done to readers.  By concealing the true source of information, plagiarists deny “the public insight into how key facts come to light” and undermines the efforts of other journalists and readers to assess the truth value of the (embezzled) journalistic accounts.  In Wasserman’s view, plagiarism violates the very “truth-seeking and truth-telling” mission of journalism.

From The Atlantic Wire website, John Hudson implied that Jack Shafer didn’t have any particular vendetta against Posner; Shafer was simply sticking to his mission of exposing lapses in media ethics:

Shafer has made a habit of pushing journalists to be more accurate and responsible from his post at Slate’s Press Box, a column devoted to media criticism.  Voices like his are increasingly crucial as journalistic mores shift, with Shafer both demonstrating and explaining how Web writing can work.

Nothing beats a good scandal — but when the scandal involves a scandal-breaker, there seems to be a bit of karma happening.

At the ScienceBlogs website, Razib Kahn characterized the Posner situation as more a problem of being pathologically dumb than being a pathological plagiarist:

The Ben Domenech case actually shows that yes, internet-age plagiarists can be pathologically dumb.  There are plenty of cases of small-time plagiarists; my friend Randall Parker of FuturePundit was pointed to another blogger who was copying his posts almost verbatim.  Small potatoes.  But if you’re a professional journalist, you’re going to get caught if you have any prominence if people can compare the text on the internet.

I think catching people plagiarizing like this is a good sign that there are some mental peculiarities at work here; cognitive biases if you will.  This isn’t cheating on college papers, unethical as it is, this is being unethical for short-term gains when there’s a very high probability that you’ll be caught and humiliated in public in the long-term.

Being called unethical is something that Posner had probably been expecting — but being called dumb has to really hurt!



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