Why Plagiarism Continues & What Writers, Editors Can Do About It

In the first years post-Jayson Blair, it seemed like there was a new plagiarism case every month or so. In newsrooms big and small, young reporters — as well as long-time editors — got caught by savvy readers, or their victims. For a while, it seemed like plagiarism, along with fabrication, would be the journalism problem of the decade.

Then the bottom fell out of the news business and we started talking more about survival than standards. But plagiarism never really went away. Two high-profile cases, one this week and one last, brought back flashbacks of the summer of 2003, when Blair and several others were exposed.

First, editors at the Daily Beast suspended, then accepted the resignation of, their chief investigative reporter Gerald Posner. Second, editors at The New York Times suspended, then accepted the resignation of, business reporter Zachery Kouwe.

Both cases followed a similar pattern. First, an outside journalist pointed out the questionable copy. Jack Shafer of Slate exposed Posner. Robert Thomson of The Wall Street Journal alerted the Times’ to Kouwe’s problematic story.

In both cases, when the reporters were confronted, they readily acknowledged their work was flawed and said they were dumbfounded or stunned by the revelation. Then, in both cases, a closer look at their work revealed more stolen words.

Posner and Kouwe said they were completely shocked and baffled by the additional allegations. They each blamed their systems of research and note-taking. They blamed the “warp speed” at which they must work. They blamed the Internet. (Jack Shafer lists the “dirty dozen excuses” plagiarists use.)

This is how it goes.

Plagiarism may have faded from the headlines in the latter part of the 2000s. That doesn’t mean editors everywhere stopped catching it and letting people go. If anything, plagiarism became a more mundane, run-of-the-mill crime. When editors call me to seek advice after catching one of their own stealing the work of others, I tell them about the drill.

It goes like this: You confront the writer with the evidence and see what he or she says. Then you suspend him pending a deeper investigation. Then you randomly go back and check his work. But before you do that, you tell him that you’re going to do a check and ask if you’re likely to find anything else. Of course he will tell you, “no.” But nine times out of 10, you’re going to find something. It’s not hard. You just drop distinctive phrases from their copy into Google. Then compare the publication dates and time stamps.

Plagiarism will continue to flourish on the Web. It’s a crime that will be committed by veterans and novices, by professionals and amateurs. Here are some simple tips for stopping this unoriginal sin (a phrase I first read in a column written by Roy Peter Clark, who got it from someone else.)

If you are a writer:

  • Do not cut and paste information from other sources into your notes pages. Instead, create bullet points where you synthesize the information in your own words and note the original source.
  • Before you start to research, write. In the middle of your research, write. Expressing your own thoughts and using your own words will force your brain to flex the self-expression neurons, rather than the repetition neurons.
  • Develop your own voice. Too much information on the Internet is simply repeated. Even if you aren’t doing any original reporting, you can find original expression.
  • Do original reporting. It’s hard to duplicate the work of others when you have the knowledge to say it better.
  • Attribute any information. If you found it, say how. If you read it somewhere, say where.

If you are an editor:

  • Require your writers to attribute.
  • Learn the style and voice of your writers. When you see something that seems unusual, check it out.
  • Even if the copy is published directly to the Web, go behind and read with a critical eye.
  • Ask writers to explain their reporting and research processes.
  • Coach all writers, including those with a lot of experience, to make their work transparent. Always assume the reader is asking, “How do you know that?” and answer the question in the copy.

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