First off, Jonah Lehrer seems to have lost his last writing job. Charles Seife at The Slate reported that he was brought in by Wired.com to check out some 18 of Lehrer’s previous blog posts there and found ethical issues with 17 of them. The issues included recycling of his own work in 14 of the posts, plagiarism from press releases in 5 cases, plagiarism from other sources in 3 cases. There were also quotation issues in 4 cases and factual issues in 4 posts. This report prompted Wired.com to dismiss Lehrer, terminating his last position as a writer. Lehrer was previously a rising star in the field of science writing but after allegations of self-plagiarism prompted a detailed investigation of his work, Lehrer was found to have engaged in various unethical behavior including fabricating quotes and plagiarism. This prompted Lehrer to resign his position from The New Yorker, where he was doing most of his work at the time. Wired.com had initially kept him on pending the outcome of Seife’s investigation.
Analysis: Though there’s little doubt that the crowdsourced effort to comb through Lehrer’s work continues, at least to some degree, Seife’s report puts the issue into perspective. Lehrer’s transgressions were clearly not a series of isolated mistakes that were only caught by chance. Instead, his behavior was systemic and the fact Lehrer had been able to go for so long raises serious questions about how he was able to continue with so many ethical issues.
To see last week's poll results (Fareed Zakaria), scroll to the bottom!
However, it isn’t just Jonah Lehrer that is losing promising journalism positions this week. Craig Silverman at Poynter reports that Arizona State University Student Raquel Velasco has likely been dismissed from both The East Valley Tribune and The State Press following discoveries that she plagiarized articles at each. At this time, there’s no way to be certain that Velasco was the student involved at both. Though The State Press identified her by name, The East Valley Tribune declined to do so. However, Velasco’s LinkedIn profile shows that she worked for both papers, making it very likely. A third paper Velasco wrote for, The Arizona Republic, is said to be looking into her work following the other scandals.
Analysis: What’s interesting about this case, which is also noted in the original article, is how differently the papers handled the scandal. Even if two different reporters are involved, the situations are similar enough that the differences are striking. The State Press was extremely transparent with its information, identifying the plagiarist, what they learned, when they learned it and how they reacted, while The East Valley Tribune was much more opaque, hiding key facts. The case highlights the need for standard industry practices in this field and the need for publications to be prepared should such a case arise in their home.
Across the country, the Boston Globe is dealing with a plagiarism debacle of its own. Sydney Smith of iMediaEthics reports that the paper has appended an Editor’s note to an unsigned August 17 editorial entitled “Biden Should Apologize for ‘Back in Chains’ remark.” According to note, the work contained “similarities in phrasing and structure” to an earlier work on WBUR.org, the local NPR affiliate. Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, posted a blog entry on the matter saying that the two pieces track with each other “virtually paragraph by paragraph” with some similar and identical language. The Free Republic also reported on the matter, saying that the Globe suspended columnist Joan Vennochi for two weeks over the incident. However, neither the paper nor Vennochi have commented on the Free Republic’s claims.
Analysis: As with The East Valley Tribune in the case above, The Boston Globe is being very opaque with the case and not providing the public any details. This has opened the door for other news organizations to report on the story and either inject speculation or reveal facts. Either way, The Boston Globe was likely better off having laid out the facts of the case wholly and being transparent about its process.
Next up, according to Julia Talanova and Jason Kessler at CNN, Harvard is battling a plagiarism and collusion case that is quickly reaching astounding proportions. Officials there recently announced that they were investigating some 125 students for alleged collusion. The students, which made up nearly half of a class entitled “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress” are accused of working together inappropriately on a take home test. The instructor in the course became wary of the similarities between the tests and that, in turn, prompted Harvard to launch what it described as a “comprehensive review” of the tests. The 125 students allegedly involved will face hearings before the school’s Administrative Board and may be forced to withdraw from school for up to one year in addition to other punishments.
Analysis: Widespread collusion on a take home test may not be that uncommon, but what is unusual about it is first for it to happen at a school as prestigious as Harvard and for them to be this open about it, including being the ones to report the scandal to the media. While what happened at Harvard is certainly a mark on the school’s name, the way the school is handling it is exemplary and likely to go a long way to preventing any long term damage. It’s a lesson for other schools.
Internationally, a plagiarism scandal is major news in the Philippines, where, according to Jojo Malig of ABS-CBN News, Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III has been accused by a second U.S. blogger of plagiarizing their work. Janice Formichella, who writes for “Ms.” magazine, claims that Sotto “lifted entire passages” from a two-year old post and “twisted” her words, using words from a post supporting contraceptive rights for women in a speech opposing them. Formichella is joined by another US blogger, Sarah Pope, who accused Sotto last month of using her blog post in a speech opposing the bill, which would expand contraception access and sex education in the country. In addition to Formichella’s and Pope’s allegations, Sotto has also been accused of copying and translating a speech by US Senator Robert Kennedy in another speech against the bill. Sotto, through all of the allegations, has denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly lashed out at those making the allegations against him.
Analysis: Even if one feels Sotto did nothing wrong, the case highlights why politicians must be extra careful when it comes to plagiarism. Not only has the scandal given his opponents an opening to attack him, but it has become a major distraction from a crucial and controversial bill. Furthermore, Sotto’s reaction, which has been to attack those he is alleged to have lifted from, has only served to draw more ire toward him, deepening the scandal rather than putting it behind him.
Also last week, Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch reports on an a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, which concluded that a large number of retraction notices are not wholly honest about misconduct. The study looked at 208 cases closed by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity between 1992 and 2011. Of those, 75 cases cited at least one published article, for a total of 174 articles. They then removed 55 more articles because the researchers could not find both the article and a retraction/correction statement or the statement simply read “retracted”. This left 119 articles that were retracted or corrected. Of those, just 41.2% indicated that an ethical issue was the reason for the retraction or correction and only 32.8% specified the the concern. However, the study did note that retractions and corrections were becoming more transparent over time and that the more recent statements mentioned ethics much more frequently than older ones.
Analysis: Though it’s good to see that transparency is improving in retraction notices, there’s clearly been a problem with this historically and remains one today. Though there will never likely be a completely standardized approach, especially with the explosion of new journals coming out every year, there needs to be a greater push for transparency in retraction notices and better guidelines for what should be included in them.
Finally today, for those who would enjoy some fictional plagiarism, there is a new movie entitled “The Words” that may be of interest. Released on Friday, “The Words”, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s movie critic Steven Rea, is a movie about a struggling writer who finds a manuscript in a leather satchel and then, upon reading it, finds it to be an amazing work. He then types it up and quickly becomes a best-selling author who wins several prestigious awards. A story within a story, “The Words” focuses on bringing that story to life as well as the story of the author who wrote it. “The Words” stars Zeljko Ivanek, Ben Barnes and Michael McKean. It also features Olivia Wilde and Dennis Quaid, among others.
Analysis: Usually when someone mentions plagiarism and movies, it’s one writer or filmmaker accusing another of it. It’s rare for the subject to feature so prominently in the plot. Movies, for better or worse, have a major role in shaping our culture and how many people perceive things. Plagiarism is no different. Though “The Words” clearly seems to take a negative stance on plagiarism, how it approaches teh subject, especially if it becomes extremely popular, could have a major impact on the way others view the subject for years to come.
Issue 1 Poll Results
Poll Question: Do you think Time Magazine's 1 month suspension for Fareed Zakaria was:
41% Not Harsh Enough
10% Too Harsh
5% Unnecessary - he apologized