November 26, 2007

During a friendly exchange of e-mails, Columbia Missourian editor Tom Warhover
noted that the “higher standard” on plagiarism he mentioned was in place
long before he arrived at the paper.  In fact, he noted, “the
policy comes from, of all people, you!” 

I assumed that the allusion was to an essay I had
written for the old Washington Journalism Review in 1983, titled “The
Unoriginal Sin.”
  Warhover had mentioned a textbook “used in all beginning reporting classes” at Missouri.  Sure enough, on page 506 of the seventh edition of “News
Reporting and Writing,” by four authors known as the Missouri Group, I found:

In the daily practice of
journalism, reporters, consciously or unconsciously, deal with many
situations that could involve plagiarism.  Roy Peter Clark of The
Poynter Institute has listed them.

The authors then refer to a
list on the next page under the title “Beware of Plagiarism!” Keep that
exclamation point in mind.

On the list, attributed to me in a credit line, are the areas of
danger, what Catholic educators used to call “occasions of sin”: 

Taking material verbatim from the newspaper library;
using material verbatim from the wire services; using material from
other publications; using news releases verbatim; using the work of
fellow reporters;  using old stories over again. 

indeed describe the categories I defined in my 1983 plagiarism essay.

But under each of these subheads is a paragraph written by one of the
Missouri authors, though the reader of the text would assume it was written by
me.  Take the last example: 

Columnists, beware! Your
readers have a right to know when you are recycling your
material.  Some of them might catch you at it, and there goes your

These, I assure you, are not my words.  In my
original essay, I describe this practice as “a low-grade ethical
problem.”  Low-grade ethical problems, I’d argue now, do not
require exclamation points — nor would they be considered plagiarism.

I give credit to the Missouri Group for calling students’ attention to
the dangers of plagiarism, and for giving me credit for a list of basic
ideas.  I assume that I gave the authors permission to use the material,
and may have even seen versions of the text.  But to the reader of
the text, it looks like I said things I didn’t say and wrote things I
didn’t write.  I’ve got no name for that: 
mis-plagiarism?  reverse plagiarism?  not-tribution?

Here’s what I now believe:  that it is impossible to plagiarize
from yourself, and that we should reserve the p-word for the crudest
forms of malpractice. 

One more curious bit of history:  At the end of the section on plagiarism in the Missouri textbook is a list of suggested readings.  On it is the book “The Imperative of Freedom:  A Philosophy of Journalistic Autonomy.”  The author is John Merrill.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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