Ctrl-V - Plagiarism in the News - Issue 1
First off, the problems just keep coming for Jonah Lehrer. According to Steve Myers at Poynter, Lehrer’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is now reviewing all three of Lehrer’s books. The move comes after journalist Michael Moynihan discovered that Lehrer had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book “Imagine”, prompting Harcourt to pull copies of the book and halt ebook sales. Moynihan, however, has gone on to look at another one of Lehrer’s books, “How We Decide” and claims to have found further instances of fabricated quotes and plagiarism. Much of the scrutiny started after Lehrer was accused of self-plagiarism in his work for The New Yorker, reusing old quotes from either his books or articles written for other publications. Though Lehrer survived the initial scandal, he resigned shortly after the Dylan quotes were revealed to be fabricated. However, despite his resignation, the review of Lehrer’s work is continuing and likely will for some time.
Analysis: Even though Lehrer has resigned, interest in the case is still very high and with the crowdsourced effort to find misconduct by Lehrer on going, it’s likely that there’s still many more discoveries to be made. In short, Lehrer won’t be able to hide from the spotlight and his past publishers/employers are going to be dealing with the fallout for a long time to come.
However, Lehrer is not the only journalist in hot water over plagiarism allegations. According to Christine Haughney of The New York Times, Time Magazine has suspended Fareed Zakaria, their editor at large, for one month after he admitted to and apologized for plagiarizing sections of his gun control column in the most recent issue. CNN, which like Time is owned by Time Warner, is following suit has removed Zakaria’s blog post on the topic from their site and suspended his weekly show “Fareed Zakaria GPS”. The incident came to light after other reporters noticed similarities between Zakaria’s August column and an earlier article by Jill Lepore in the April 23rd edition of The New Yorker. For his part, Zakaria said that the plagiarism was a “terrible mistake” and apologized to the original author, his editors and his readers.
Analysis: As with the Lehrer case, Zakaria’s plagiarism was first caught by a third party reporter, this one interested in pointing out perceived liberal bias in the media. With so many watchdogs, professional and amateur, watching the media, the issue of misconduct is going to get more important and something that news organizations are going to have to get more proactive about dealing with.
But while Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria are being targeted over allegations of fabrication and plagiarism, a student at the University of Connecticut is alleging that his school is threatening to suspend him over his accusations that they are taking plagiarism too lightly. According to William Weir of the Hartford Courant, Stephen Wulff, a PhD candidate at the school, alleges that he took an unpaid internship at the schools UNESCO department where his job was to edit some 63 essays submitted by applicants seeking acceptance to a leadership training program. Wulff alleges that he discovered plagiarism in 14 of the essays and that all but one of the students involved agreed to rewrite their paper. However, when he brought the last case to the attention of his supervisors, Wulff claims they sought to let that student continue to participate, prompting him to quit in protest. After that, as he threatened to expose what he saw as relaxed plagiarism enforcement, the school threatened to suspend him over what he Wulff believes to be small, previously resolved matters. The school has said that they take plagiarism seriously but give leeway with this program as it is designed to bring diverse cultures together.
Analysis: It’s unclear if UCONN was actually being unfair to Wulff and it’s possible he simply perceives what is going on as retribution when it is not. Still, the case highlights how sensitive schools are to accusations of being soft on plagiarism though how inconsistent their policies often are, especially across schools and in different areas. The importance of a well-written and enforceable plagiarism policy becomes clear.
In politics this week, Theresa Boucher of the Berkshire Eagle reports that Bill Shein, a candidate for Congress in the First District of Massachusetts, has accused his opponent, Andrea Nuciforo Jr. of copying various campaign statements from others including U.S. Senator John Edwards and U.S. President Barack Obama. According to Shein, Nuciforo’s values statement was taken from a similar statement by Alan Khazei, a former state senate candidate. He goes on to say that some of Nuciforo’s position papers use language from Senator John Edwards 2007 campaign documents and programs enacted by President Obama. Nuciforo denies the allegations and stands by the materials.
Analysis: When it comes to matters of politics, even the perception of plagiarism can be a dangerous blow to a candidate's reputation. The guidelines for misconduct in a political environment have to be even more strict than in other arenas due to the ability of opponents to use the smallest opening as a potential attack. Still, in this race, the issue may be moot as another candidate, Richard Neal, holds a wide lead over both Shein and Nuciforo.
Also in politics, Erica Rodriguez of the Orlando Sentinel writes that local school board candidate Cheryl Thomas was accused of plagiarism by blogger Vance Jochim, who said he spotted similarities between a voting guide Thomas had submitted to the paper and a website for a school board member in Virginia. Thomas has denied plagiarism but has since submitted a corrected version of the guide. Thomas would not comment on the origins of the original language.
Analysis: It’s impossible to say whether the guide was written by Thomas herself or if it was someone on her staff, but when a politician, or anyone else, puts their name on a work they become attached to it and any misconduct with in it. Clearly, in these environments, a very proactive approach to misconduct is necessary.
Internationally, Arsalan Haider of the Daily Times in Pakistan reports that the country is still struggling with plagiarism issues though things have improved since the founding of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002. Over the past few decades there have been many high-profile plagiarism cases among the country’s teachers, in particular PhD scholars, and the HEC has performed inquiries against members, including some who were blacklisted. However, despite the HEC’s efforts, many accused plagiarists still work at universities across the country, some having used the influence to absolve themselves. While the focus of the HEC is on educating around plagiarism, in 2011 the organization allowed Turnitin to access all private and public universities to help implement a plagiarism policy. HEC Director Dr. Sohail Naqvi emphasizes that the organization’s efforts against plagiarism are a long-term project that will take some time to complete.
Analysis: In the end, turning around a culture of plagiarism in a country’s academic system is not an easy job nor is it a quick one. The HEC in Pakistan has made some great strides but, as with any country in its position, there are many obstacles to rooting out misconduct, including established authorities who accepted and maybe even used unethical practices. However, with determination and time, as the HEC is showing, these obstacles can be overcome.
Also this week, Google may have given online plagiarists a new reason to worry. On Friday, Google announced in a blog post that it will start factoring in the number of copyright removal notices a site has received when determining the site’s ranking. This means that sites with a large number of copyright notices, including those that are reported for plagiarized content, will not just have individual pages removed, but will have the entire domain lowered in the search engine rankings.
Analysis: All in all, this is yet another incentive from Google to produce and post original content. On top of its normal duplicate content penalties, this “pirate penalty” will affect sites that house a large amount of infringing material, making it crucial that large sites be aware of what they’re posting and have good practices for dealing with plagiarism and copyright infringement.
Finally just the other day, according to Tom Phillips of The Telegraph, in China, viewers of the sitcom iPartment are raising questions about the originality of the show. The show, which is in its third season, has a similar formula to the U.S. sitcom Friends and allegedly has used nearly identical scenes from other U.S. shows such as How I Met Your Mother and the Big Bang Theory. One newspaper report said that the show’s producers have admitted to using jokes from “various sources” but they staunchly denied plagiarism. However, at least one Chinese Twitter user was less than convinced asking if the show is “only intended for those born after 1990, who have not watched Friends?”
Analysis: If you plagiarize and borrow too heavily from other sources, especially well-known and well-loved content people will notice. While one may find it easy to avoid the wrath of editors or other copyright holders, it’s much more difficult to dodge the anger coming from your fans.
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