Columbia Spectator fires editor who plagiarized from New York Times article

IvyGate | Inside Higher Ed | Bwog

An article by Jade Bonacolta in the Columbia Spectator plagiarized a New York Times writer's work, Peter Jacobs reports. Some of the plagiarism is clumsy rewriting of a Robin Pogrebin article; there's one outright lift of a quote.

"[W]e have retracted this story after verifying that at least three paragraphs were largely identical to those in the New York Times piece," an editor's note that replaces Bonacolta's piece says. "We will be reviewing the writer's other work and will update readers as we know more."

Bonacolta's LinkedIn page identifies her as arts and entertainment editor at the Spectator; Jacobs says Spectator Editor-in-Chief Sarah Darville told him she was an associate editor. According to her profile there and on Facebook, she's been at the Spectator since November 2011 and has held editorial positions at Hoot Magazine, Elmore Magazine and a literary magazine called Loque and Quay Literary Arts.

Darville told Columbia's Bwog that Bonacolta’s position at the paper is under review as well. "We’re still reviewing her work for Spec, and will make a decision upon completion of that review," she said. Bwog, the blog of Columbia undergraduate magazine Blue and White, also points out, helpfully, that Jonah Lehrer used to write for the Spectator.
Friday evening, Danville told staff Bonacolta was fired.

Hi everyone, 

I'm sure many of you noticed the editor's note published online yesterday in response to an article in Thursday's A&E section titled "Frank Lloyd Wright archives arrive at Columbia." I want to take this space to explain what happened and where things stand now.

Yesterday around 6 p.m., I got a call from an editor at the blog Ivygate, telling me that they had just posted something about one of our articles being plagiarized. It was obvious that a few pieces of Jade Bonacolta's piece closely mirrored a New York Times piece published two days earlier, and we immediately replaced the article with an editor's note. 

A closer look led to the article's retraction within the next hour. Using the writer's interview notes, the press materials released by the University, the articles themselves and conversations with the writer, we have concluded that she both lifted text from the Times piece and created a false quote using material from the Times piece. We did not find any evidence of anything similar in her past work for Spectator.  

We have absolutely no tolerance for plagiarism, and Jade's relationship with Spectator has been terminated. 

We were, as you may be, shocked by such a clear breach of ethics, as our editorial standards for accuracy and originality are the first things new writers learn (second only, perhaps, to their own poor lung capacity after climbing three sets of stairs). But though this situation has been disappointing, it has been dealt with quickly in order not to distract from what you all do so well—produce high-quality journalism every day that serves the campus and our neighborhood.

Please contact me or Maggie if you have any questions. 


I ran one of Bonacolta's Elmore pieces that I chose at random through an online plagiarism checker and found a sentence lifted from the site for Bumbershoot, the music festival she was writing about: "One ticket gets you into all Bumbershoot venues, including both afternoon and evening shows at the Mainstage." Hardly Jayson Blair, but not a good sign: She couldn't have been bothered to express information that boring in her own words?

Whenever one of these cases pops up (and they pop up with dismal regularity), Poynter readers on Twitter ask why anyone thinks they can get away with lifting copy from others. Barbara Fister responds, in a way, by writing about the pressures that norms place on students:

I suspect a large part of the problem is that we send such mixed messages to students. You may hate group work, but it will prepare you for the reality of the workplace - but when we tell you to work alone, don’t discuss the test or homework problems with anybody else or face severe punishment. When you write a paper, your work must be original - but back up every point by quoting someone else who thought of it first. Develop your own voice as a writer – but try to sound as much like us as possible. ...

All of this complexity is compounded by dire warnings about the consequences of plagiarism, layered on top of a mistaken notion that research is formalized copying. Who would ever fall in love with research under these conditions? Who would even think it is a meaningful activity?

Great questions, but I think they downplay the basic dishonesty that enables someone to grab an idea, a quote, a sentence from someone else's work (not to mention the dangers of that dishonesty, given the Internet's ability to amplify even bush-league moral lapses).

Last month, my coworker Craig Silverman wrote about warning signs in young writers' work: "The core of fabrication is a separation from reality," he wrote. Smaller problems, like crummy sourcing and quotes that seem a little too perfect, are strong indicators of a bigger problem, Silverman wrote.

"The Words," a movie about plagiarism, opens this weekend, and Jen Chaney's review of it for The Washington Post provides a meta-example of the smaller-problems-leading-to-bigger-problems principle. The broke would-be author who presents another writers' work as his own somehow affords a honeymoon in Paris, Chaney writes, and the work that proves irresistible to him is "often hackneyed and pretentious," she writes. "First rule of making a movie about writing: Make sure the prose in that movie’s screenplay is actually good."

Related stories on university plagiarism: ASU journalism student plagiarizes at The State Press, East Valley Tribune; Arizona Republic investigating her stories, too | Harvard probes cheating by 125 students in the same class

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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