Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Plague of Plagiarists


The big kerfuffle in the blogosphere this week was the debacle at WashingtonPost.com and their rather short-lived conservative Republican blogger. RedAmerica, as they named the blog (after rejecting RedDawn as being too obviously pro-gun), was written by a young well-connected blogger named Ben Domenech. I really don’t follow political blogs very much because the signal-to-noise ratio is just horrendous, so I was unfamiliar with RedState, where Domenech, who seems to like the color red, wrote under the pseudonym Augustine (a gimmick he probably lifted from Enders Game).

Well young Ben came out guns ablazing. In his first post he tiraded against the “shrieking denizens” of the left, who immediately took umbrage and started turning over rocks looking for something to throw at him. Ben immediately apologized for calling Coretta Scott King a “communist” while the rest of the country including our president was eulogizing her.

Then the charges of plagiarism came out. And they stuck. Liberal sites like DailyKos and Atrios began cataloging suspiciously similar phrases, paragraphs and even entire articles as fast as searches could reveal them. WaPo.com announced an investigation and Domenech resigned. His entire blog lasted less than 100 hours. Joel Achenbach, a real journalist and the WaPo's top blogger basically says good riddance.

I really don’t care about Ben’s politics or the extremely poor judgment on a lot of levels that the Post showed in hiring him. I‘m more interested in the plagiarism aspect which is extremely perplexing. I disagree that plagiarism is the worst offense a journalist can make. Blatant libelous character assassination is the most criminally actionable, but since the burden of proof is so high in the US, Tom Cruise and Roman Polanski and others with a beef with the press run to the more sympathetic British courts. I would even call outright fabrication even worse than plagiarism. As Janet Cook, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair have shown, the actions of one person can severely tarnish the reputation of a whole organization and reinforce suspicions about the entire journalism industry.

Plagiarism in the internet age is paradoxical because it is so easy to do yet so easy to detect. My wife found the winning poem in a contest at her school a little better than the student’s previous work would suggest she was capable of. A trial membership at an anti-plagiarism website immediately revealed the poem as copyrighted material. Definitely easier to detect than it was in John Kelly’s day.

Domenech’s “borrowing” was so irrefutable that his ostensible right-wing friends like Michelle Malkin, who he had worked with, had to back away. Rather than ‘fessing up immediately, Ben went to the plagiarist’s stock list of excuses. They include in decreasing plausibility:

Yellojkt's Top Ten Excuses Used by Plagiarists
  1. My notes were poor and I didn’t realize it was a quote and not my own thought.
  2. It was an editing error. The attribution got lost in revision.
  3. I referenced the source once and that should be enough.
  4. That idea is in the public domain and I didn’t get it from the person accusing me.
  5. It was a youthful indiscretion.
  6. I was just using the press release, that’s what it’s there for. (Corollary: I didn’t steal from him, we both stole from that guy.)
  7. I didn’t copy. I changed a bunch of words.
  8. People do it to me, so what’s the big deal?
  9. The source said I could use it and just doesn’t remember now.
  10. Someone else did it and signed my name to it.
© 2006 by yellojkt. All attributions or re-use must include a link to this post. Don't lie, cheat or steal.


Sometimes the reasons make sense. Dan Brown is defending himself for his ideas in The DaVinci Code using a combination of excuses 3 and 4. And I think that line of thought has some validity. Plenty of authors have written about Jesus and Mary Magdalene hooking up. Memory and Google fail me, but I’m pretty sure one of the Dangerous Visions collections from the 60s had just such a story.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has emerged only slightly battered using reason 1 and 2. A slew of pro-Walmart apologists are hiding behind the cover of 6. While Ben didn’t use the whole list, I think he invented items 9 and 10, perhaps the only original thoughts he has ever had. He finally took full blame in a rather defensive non-specific way and is now on his way to being a cause celebre and a martyr.

Accusations of plagiarism can be a career-ending death-blow. Newspaper columnists seem particularly susceptible as high profile cases like Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe have shown. Something about the high volume of deadline writing and the tendancy to annoy people that may want to get back at you makes for a dangerous combination.

Here in Baltimore, highly respected columnist Michael Olesker resigned from the Baltimore Sun after reports from the local weekly alternative City Paper raised some questions. As David Simon explains, columnists have a tough time because they often have to summarize an issue in the news before opining on it. In Oleskar’s case, his little summaries were too often too similar to previously printed descriptions. The Sun never quite used the “P”-word, but they did say his stuff did not meet their standards for attribution. I think the cases they dug up are pretty slim, but based on the shabby treatment the Sunpapers has given their columnists in the past (see my mourning of Jules Witcover), I think the powers that be decided to err on the side of lower overhead.

In college, I was accused of plagiarism by a professor because she did not think the word “hegemonistic” was within the vocabulary of an engineering student. The word did not appear anywhere in the source and was my own interpretation. I had to meet with her and trot out my Model United Nations geek bona fides to convince her. She gave me and A on the paper, but I still got a B for the course.

What is the take-away lesson for bloggers? Cite and source. A whole page of hot links can look a little Christmas tree like, but it shows you know what you are doing and that you give credit where credit is due. I don’t know where I heard that first, but it seems like good advice.

19 comments:

katiedid said...

Oh man, thank you for the link to this post - that list is so spot-on. It's (in my experience anyhow) SCARY how accurate it is. Sigh.

Karen said...

Here's a comment that I decided not to post on Achenblog because plagiarism is Not a Joking Matter at the Post these days. But it ties the Domenech kit and the Rough Draft together, in a way (in a baaaad way.)

Pot Calling the Kettle Black Department:

My husband sells artwork. He leases a "digital imaging machine" (you might call it a photocopy machine) that he uses to make copies of paintings that were imported from China. He creates a laser print, adds a few brushstrokes, frames it up and takes it to the show. He's an artist and he makes a living. He's not apologizing.

Today I read him a paragraph from Rough Draft and he laughed, and then he said, "Wait a minute! That's an old Dave Barry column!" Back in the Herald Tropic days, it was a weekly ritual for me to read Dave's column out loud to him. I don't actually remember the column he's referring to, but certainly Dave has been known to columnize about his yard--he's even written a book that treats the subject at some length. I defended Joel, first by saying that he freely admits being inspired by Dave (and Gene), and then asserting that Achenbach is much more serious about his lawn than Dave ever was. (Here's a Dave Barry quote, for example: "I care for my lawn about as well as Godzilla cared for Tokyo.")

In the end, I convinced him that it's to Joel's credit that Rough Draft is so Barryesque--it means it's funny, no?

And I convinced both of us, eventually, that maybe the Rough Draft sounds familiar because Joel is repeating one of his own themes. It's just very ironic to have plagiarism accusations in the air this week, and from Tocci of all people.

yellojkt said...

I was going to make a joke about Joel cribbing from Erma Bombeck, but decided that wasn't funny either.

DecemberFlower said...

Out of all of those excuses, I think #1 and #2 are the most understandable. I don't think that makes them valid enough to excuse the plagiarism, but I could at least understand where the plagiarist is coming from.

That could be just because I easily see myself in that position.

2fs said...

The Dan Brown thing is particularly odd - given that a lot of the ideas he plays with in DVC have been around for years: hell, in the '70s alone, both Philip K. Dick and Jefferson Airplane ("Son of Jesus": "Jesus had a son / By Mary Magdalene...") used some of those ideas. So for some researchers to try to claim originality with ideas that have been around forever, well, strikes me as rather dubious. Now if someone had sued Brown for overuse of adjectives, that might have some merit.

yellojkt said...

2fs,

Thanks for the Philip K. Dick mention. That is probably the story I can't remember any more. The whole Last Temptation of Christ had to do with Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Tom Robbins went one step further and supposed that the Resurrection never took place in The Last Roadside Attraction.

Mooselet said...

I'd have to agree that out and out fabrication is far worse than plagiarism in any field. This of course does not excuse plagiarism, which is a form of theft. The only excuses I could buy from your list as being valid is #2 - as it may be out of your control - and #4. Public domain is a very iffy area in today's google age, and I can see where some people, myself at the top of that list, would get confused.

And the RedAmerica name first conjured to mind images of communists before Republicans... does that make me old?

yellojkt said...

I think the whole red state/america/meat metaphor is completely over-exposed.

Em said...

"Hegemonic" not within an engineering student's vocabulary? What a load of horseshit.

loudfan said...

I was never a big fan of Olesker when I lived in Baltimore -- I remember making fun of the column he wrote about his vasectomy, which I referred to as the "Hey Girls, I'm Available" column -- but out of all the notable newspaper plagiarists of late, he got a raw deal. You're probably right about the Sun hoping to save a few bucks.

yellojkt said...

Olesker wasn't my cup of tea either, but a guy with that level of seniority should have been cut a little more slack. I'm cancelling the Sun if that new Examiner starts showing up on my lawn. There's no one in the Sun I must read any more. I ams so tired of Reimer and Kane.

trusty getto said...

Excellent post. I agree 100% with you.

How 'bout this question, then: what is your thought on taking photos from web sites that don't contain copyright notices? Free game or stealing?

used*to*be*me* said...

Oh, good question TG. That made me lose my original comment. I think that it is stealing. Even when credit goes to the site it was taken from if you don't get permission to use it. And, I must admit that I'm guilty of it.

I've walked the thin line on plagerism during school. It is so hard (for me) to read something, an idea or new concept, and then make it my own. How do you do that withouth plagerising?

Plain Jane said...

I posted a story someone else wrote without credit them once... once. It came back to bite me in the ass and I learned - name the source, credit where credit is due, etc. ALWAYS.

yellojkt said...

It's tough to tell when a picture is public domain or not. I tend to use mostly my own pictures, although I do steal a lot of celebrity photos. That's more copyright infringement than plagiarism since I am not representing it as my own work.

If I really thought about it I would link the picture back to the source. I think most of my comics clips and logos fall under fair use for review and comment.

trusty getto said...

Well, sorry for the digression on copyright infringement then, but, what if you actually embed the html so that your post grabs the picture at it's original location on it's own server, leaves it there, but displays it on your page?

Leaving things readily downloadable over the internet on a publicly accessible server without a copyright notice injects a certain ambiguity into it all. I see these "Creative Commons" usage notices and other stuff (like copyright notices) which clarifies, but what if there is no notice? Is the default to protect it or to make it public?

BTW: I don't think the burglary analogy of leaving your door unlocked works here, because we all know we aren't supposed to enter someone else's house. I can't say that about non-password protected servers hooked up to the internet with their files readily accessible.

yellojkt said...

What you're describing now, trusty is deep-linking which, at best, is bad manners. A lot of sites, including place like NPR, try to prohibit this because unscrupulous websites try to pass off other site's material as their own, which is a form of plagiarism.

Often the source sites feel they are getting cheated out of ad revenue or prestige. Which they are. The defining court cases on these issues haven't run their course yet. Some "information wants to be free" zealots say an enforceable no deep-linking rule could kill the internet.

trusty getto said...

Very interesting, YJ. Thank you for the indulgence :)

Don from I-270 said...

This is great stuff. May I plagiarize this and give it to my daughter, who wants to be a journalist? Just kidding. Ever since she announced her intentions, journalistic news just seems to jump out at me.