Name gaffe causes Toronto Star to accuse wrong person of plagiarism

Two weeks ago I decided I’d seen enough same name/wrong photo mistakes in the press to publish a post offering five tips that would help publications avoid this error.

I was moved to write it after seeing a spate corrections in The Independent and the Daily Mirror. Then, not long after the post was published, it happened again, this time at the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, Mass.

In each case, the papers published a photo of a person who happened to share the same name as a protagonist in their respective stories. The worst offense by far was made by the MetroWest Daily News, which ran a photo of the wrong Angel Ortiz in a report about him being indicted on charges that included raping a child. The unindicted Mr. Ortiz subsequently decided to sue the paper.

I looked at the trend in my weekly column for the Toronto Star, which is filed on Thursday morning and appears in the Saturday paper. That’s worth highlighting because Star public editor Kathy English decided to write about the very same issue for her weekly column, which went online Friday.

The notable difference was she focused solely on yet another same name/wrong person error — one that the paper had recently committed. I wasn’t aware of the Star’s mistake when I wrote my column, otherwise I would have included it in my look at the issue.

Here’s English explaining the error:

This week, the Star reported the story of a Ryerson University professor whose work was plagiarized by two academics based in Iran. This academic plagiarism was confirmed by the editorial board of the Journal of Electronic Waves and Applications, which published the plagiarized work.

Unfortunately, an error in the Star’s reporting of the name of the Iranian university of one of the confirmed plagiarists caused considerable distress for not one — but two — other Iranian professors at the university the Star mistakenly named. These two professors have the same name as one of the Iranian academics who submitted an exact copy of a paper written by Ryerson computer engineering professor Xavier Fernando in 2004.

Three Iranian professors with the same name and two of them work at the same university? Yeah, you could say that’s a rather unlucky occurrence, though — as English notes — the name in question (Mehdi Dehghan) is quite common in Iran.

Here’s an apology published by the paper on February 14:

A Feb. 14 article about a Ryerson University professor whose work was plagiarized by two Iranian academics stated that one of them was Mehdi Dehghan and incorrectly stated that he is a professor at Amirkabir University of Technology in Iran. In fact, one of the authors who plagiarized the article in the Journal of Electromagnetic Waves and Applications is Mehdi Dehghan, who is affiliated with the department of electrical engineering at another Iranian university, the Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Branch in Tehran.

There are in fact two professors named Mehdi Dehghan at Amirkabir University of Technology (AUT) in Iran. Neither of them had any involvement in plagiarizing the Ryerson professor’s work. The Star apologizes to Mehdi Dehghan, an associate professor in the computer engineering and information technology department, (AUT) and Mehdi Dehghan, head of mathematics and computer science department, (AUT) for this error.

English’s column offers an account of how the mistake occurred. Here’s the reporter, Anita Li, explaining things:

“To fact-check, I googled the professors’ names. When googling “Mehdi Dehghan,” the first entry was Mehdi Dehghan of the Amirkabir University of Technology,” Li said.

Li made the incorrect assumption that this Iranian academic was the same Mehdi Dehghan who had plagiarized Fernando’s article. She thus wrote that Mehdi Dehghan was based at Amirkabir University, exposing both of that institution’s same-named profs to questions from academics around the world about whether one of them had plagiarized.

… had she more carefully checked the copy of the plagiarized paper that Fernando had also sent her, she would have seen that it clearly stated the plagiarist named Mehdi Dehghan was with the Islamic Azad University, not Amirkabir University.

The column also notes that an article Li was sent as background also included the incorrect university affiliation. She was right to double check that information by using Google, but her attempt ended in error because she didn’t drill down deep enough. Nor did she check the plagiarized paper, a primary source, for verification.

English’s column emphasizes the shared element of responsibility, which I like especially because Li is an intern who should be given proper guidance and supervision.

“I don’t think Li bears sole responsibility here,” English wrote. “She received little oversight from her editors, no questioning at all about how she knew the identities and universities of the two academics who had plagiarized.”

Errors are often a shared responsibility — and fault — whether an intern is involved or not. This is yet another reminder that teamwork and communication are wonderful tools for prevention, and asking colleagues for help and a second read is always a good thing.

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