Four years after Jonah Lehrer, WIRED has found itself once again at the center of a plagiarism story, but this time one involving a new journalist who is accused of uncited text in each of the four pieces he published for the site. According to Retraction Watch, the story begins innocently enough, with Christina Larson, a freelance writer in China, sending a direct message to WIRED editor Adam Rogers seeking a link back and attribution for her work that appeared in WIRED.
However, Rogers immediately began to investigate the case deeper and, with the aid of the magazine’s research editor, Joanna Pearlstein, began to investigate the reporter.
That reporter was Nic Cavell, a reporting fellow who had just started at the magazine for a paid six-month stint. He had only published four articles at the time the investigation began but Rogers and Pearlstein found issues with each one.
By the end of the day, after consulting senior editorial management of both Wired.com and the print magazine, Cavell was dismissed and editor’s notes were added to all four of his stories making it clear that the stories do “not meet WIRED’s journalistic standards and it reproduces material published elsewhere.”
WIRED’s plagiarism investigation skills were put in the spotlight in 2012 when it investigated disgraced reporter Jonah Lehrer, who had written for the magazine previously. Its findings were published on Slate, which provided an independent analysis on the findings as part of their reporting.
In that case, due to the volume of postings, WIRED investigated a sample of 18 works and found ethical issues with all but one of them. The analysis was released after WIRED parted ways with the reporter.
While it’s unfortunate that WIRED has had to deal with two such incidents in recent memory, it’s become a shining of example of handling plagiarism and ethical issues in the digital age.
In both cases it’s taken the allegations of plagiarism serious, launched an immediate investigation that was quickly concluded and had a decisive outcome. Most importantly the results of the investigations were revealed transparently and through third parties (Slate and Retraction Watch respectively) who could independently verify the results.
The result benefits all involved. The accused doesn’t have to face a lengthy investigation, the public is informed of the results and the publication suffers little to no damage to its reputation.
But despite the swift and transparent handling of the case, some feel WIRED was too hard on Cavell. Hired as a fellow, Cavell graduated Brown University in 2014 and had only held one other journalism position since his graduation, a brief stint at the Riverdale Press. To make matters more complicated, his degree from Brown was in East Asian Studies, not journalism.
While it’s true that Cavell was a much more novice reporter than Lehrer when his ethical infractions were discovered, a publication such as WIRED has a reasonable expectation that a reporter who has made it through university has a basic understanding of plagiarism and the ethics of writing. A strong response was still appropriate.
That being said, there’s still likely a lesson for WIRED here when it comes to its fellow program. Specifically in how it can mentor and nurture the new reporters and prevent them from making mistakes that could harm their career.
The fellow program is designed to give young reporters a chance to launch their careers. However, in the case of Cavell, it will hold him back if not destroy his prospects.
That’s a fate both WIRED and its fellows would like to avoid.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.