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CTRL-V Plagiarism in the News - Issue 16

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Nov 5, 2013 7:45:00 AM



Rand Paul Addresses Plagiarism Claims: ‘I Gave Credit’

First off this edition, Paige Lavender at The Huffington Post reports that Rand Paul, a Republican Senator from Kentucky, has been accused of plagiarizing during a pair of speeches he made over the past few months. The initial allegations surfaced from Rachel Maddow, a liberal television commentator and staunch Paul opponent, accused Paul of lifting four lines from a speech from Wikipedia. In his speech, Paul was discussing the dangers of eugenics and was doing so by referencing the 1997 movie “Gattaca”. However, when describing the plot, Paul used several passages from Wikipedia verbatim or near-verbatim without attribution. Since then, Buzzfeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski has found another possible instance of Wikipedia-related plagiarism, a June speech that referenced the movie “Stand and Deliver”. There, according to Kaczynski, Paul repeated nearly three paragraphs from the Wikipedia entry on the movie but failed to attribute the site. In an interview with Fusion, Paul was asked if he had plagiarized and he responded, saying, “I gave credit to the people who wrote the movie… Nothing I said was not given attribution to where it came from.” No mention, however, was made of Wikipedia.

Update: Since this post was written, Rand Paul further responded to the plagiarism allegations saying that they came from haters and saying he wished it were legal to duel them. Shortly after those comments, still more allegations of plagiarism came to light including allegations he reused content in a recent op-ed and in a book he published. Since those allegations came to light, Senator Paul has said that he is restructuring his office and will make better efforts to cite material he uses.

Analysis: When it comes to allegations of plagiarism against politicians, the United States is notably different than many other countries, including Germany, in that the allegations rarely have any lasting impact on the career of the politician involved. Even the best known example of a political plagiarism scandal, the Joe Biden scandal, had little impact on his overall careers. Though it ended an already-losing Presidential bid, Biden maintained his place in Congress and is now the Vice President of the United States. U.S. votes, it seems, are very willing to forgive and forget plagiarism transgressions, even if they become ammunition for political opponents. However, Paul’s response to the allegations risk making the problem far worse than it has to be. By saying that he attributed the passages because he mentioned the movies, Paul provides neither an explanation nor a justification. Instead, he indicates that he is unclear on exactly what he is being accused of. The transgression is not against the films, which were clearly cited, but against the nameless Wikipedia editors that wrote those specific passages and had their precise words used without attribution. Hopefully, Paul can more effectively address this issue and both explain what happened and apologize to those whose words he used. Otherwise, he runs the risk of this issue growing much larger than it would have had to be, especially if the misstep is repeated.


News Corporation Editor Sorry for Journalists Plagiarizing Age Stories

Next up today, The Age in Australia reports that the editor for The Australian, a New Corporation-owned newspaper, apologized to its competitor The Age for plagiarizing stories. According to the allegations, short news items on The Australian’s site bore close resemblance to previously published articles on The Age’s site. The Age responded to the alleged plagiarism by saying that “We know The Australian is obsessed with The Age, but we didn’t realize that it extended to actually plagiarising our work… We’re happy to provide them with a direct news service if they would prefer. For a small fee.” The allegations seem to have gotten the attention of The Australian’s editor, Clive Mathieson, the editor for The Australian said that, “It does appear that on these occasions our briefs ripped off information from The Age website…. It won’t happen again.” Mathieson also stated that his staff has been told “in no uncertain terms” that the behavior is not acceptable.

Analysis: The newspaper industry is becoming increasingly competitive. Couple that with shrinking newsrooms, pressure to write for multiple outlets (online and print) and the general push to do more with less, it’s inevitable that situations like this one, where two competing papers butt heads over allegations of plagiarism, arise. But what’s interesting about this case is that it doesn’t involve traditional news articles, but instead, focuses on “briefs” or extremely short pieces of content. While briefs are by no means new to newspapers, with the heavier emphasis on immediate and online content, their use is becoming much more common, often times serving as a placeholder for a developing story or while a longer, more in-depth piece is being written. It’s important for reporters and editors alike to remember that all content a newspaper publishes, whether online or off, brief or full article, is subject to the same rules and ethics as a long-form piece running on the front page of the print edition. Part of this means being aware of the potential plagiarism issues in all types of work and, taking steps to ensure that all content posted is free of problems.  Hopefully, the steps that The Australian takes will be adequate to prevent future instances of plagiarism at the paper.


A Peculiar Piece of Self-Plagiarism at The Star

In other journalism news this edition, Steve Ladurantaye wrote in his blog about a recent note from the public editor in The Star, a Toronto, Canada newspaper, that highlighted a case of self-plagiarism that saw an intern at the paper lift verbatim content from earlier work by another member of the staff. At issue was an August feature written for The Star by Marc Ellison on the subject of vanity license plates, specifically the types of plates that the government does not permit, which was written by an intern for the paper. However, according to the note, the article contained six paragraphs written by fellow Star reporter Daniel Dale in 2010. The note apologized for the “lapse in journalistic standards”, though the article remains online (albeit with the note at the top) and it is unclear what, if any, action was taken against Ellison.

Analysis: As discussed in our earlier blog post, self-plagiarism is a difficult subject for newspapers. It is common practice to reuse content from earlier reportings, especially when it’s important to be careful for legal reasons, one is simply presenting background information or there is only one appropriate way to say something. However, this case is different from the usual newsroom borrowing due to the fact that it is both longer, six paragraphs, and involved creative prose, not mundane information. The paper was right to correct the article and address the issue. Still, this case should serve as a warning to other papers to have clear guidelines on when it is acceptable to reuse previous work without attribution. It’s important for the rules to be stated clearly so that, when a reporter does cross the line, it’s clear how he or she broke the rules and what should be done about it. Going back to the previous topic and the growing pressure those in newsrooms are facing, reusing content, both ethically and unethically, are going to be growing issues for publications and the time to define the rules is now, rather than waiting until after there is a controversy.


Chris Arnold Back on the Air at 105.3 The Fan After Plagiarism Episode

Also in this edition, in a story we previously covered in a blog post, Eric Nicholson at The Dallas Observer reports that Chris Arnold, a well-known sports commentator and radio personality in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is back on the air after a one-week suspension following allegations of plagiarism. Arnold, who co-hosts “The Fan’s G-Bag Nation” on a CBS-affiliated radio station, also writes articles for the station’s site. One of those articles, a piece about the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo, was plagiarized heavily from an earlier article written by Scott Kascmar, who was writing for the site Cold Hard Football Facts. Kascmar recognized his work and called out Arnold on Twitter. Arnold admitted to using the article, including presenting some out-of-date information. Arnold said he felt Kascmar’s work was “truly awesome” and invited him to come on the show. Kascmar, however, declined the offer and said he wanted an apology instead. That apology did not come as Arnold was removed from the air for one week. which he returned from on the 20th. Though it is widely believed that his disappearance as a suspension, the station has not confirmed that. There has also been no apology from Arnold over the plagiarism and his Twitter account has remained silent since the 11th.

Analysis: Sports writers often times have to fight to show that they are journalists the same as other types of reporters. Most do this by working with integrity in their craft and producing great reports and commentaries. However, incidents such as this one seem to compound the image that sports reporters are not held to the same standards as other types of reporters. Arnold committed very blatant plagiarism, including nearly an entire article. This is one of the highest sins in journalism and his punishment was a one-week suspension, which the station hasn’t even confirmed was his actual punishment. Arnold has not apologized for his transgression, his station has not acknowledged it and he is being allowed to return to his job just one week afterward. Fareed Zakaria, for example, was also suspended for one week after a plagiarism allegation but that allegation only dealt with one paragraph in an article and Zakaria was both publicly suspended, investigated and he scaled back other activities in response. By contrast, Arnold plagiarized much more and is receiving far less punishment. This double standard for sports reporting only does a major disservice to the honest reporters who are working hard to further their craft. Cases like this simply set back the entire field.


Row Erupts Over Twitter “Plagiarism”

Also in this edition, Duncan McLeod at Tech Central reports that Business Day Television (BDTV), a South African TV station, accused CNBC Africa of plagiarism after the latter copied and pasted at least four tweets from BDTV’s Twitter stream without any attribution. The incident occurred on October 13th and saw CNBC Africa repeat verbatim a series of Tweets from BDTV within minutes of BDTV posting them. However, rather than retweeting or attributing the tweets, CNBC Africa simply copied and pasted the text without anything to identify BDTV as the author. CNBC said that there is a team of people involved in managing their CNBC Africa account and a “junior intern” made a mistake and copied and pasted the tweets rather than retweeting them. CNBC also promised that “Strict disciplinary action will be taken against the staff member in question.” However, the staff member involved was not identified. CNBC also apologized to BDTV for the incident and said that the tweets involved have been deleted.

Analysis: Twitter is a unique culture when it comes to plagiarism. It’s a unique medium that places a heavy emphasis on sharing and pushing out content on new channels. However, within that culture of sharing is also a strong culture of attribution, one that runs so deep it’s actually built into the product itself, with a “Retweet” button that allows others to share a tweet while presenting it exactly as it appeared on the original feed. What CNBC Africa did not only goes against the ethical standards of journalism, in a very serious way, it also goes against the ethical standards of the Twitter community. CNBC, as a trusted and respected news organization, clearly knew better than to engage in this type of behavior but, from all appearances, gave control of one of their Twitter accounts to someone who was not adequately trained. It’s crucial that anyone who publishes content for an outlet be properly trained and guided on the topic of journalism ethics This is regardless of whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, in a publication or on a website. Allowing someone unaware of the rules to post to a public account is not just an incredible risk, but negligent. Hopefully this is a mistake that both CNBC and other news outlets can learn from.


CDC Cries Plagiarism After Public Data Used in Lancet Article on HIV

In research news, The Want China Times reports that the China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has accused researcher Shao Yiming and several of his colleagues of plagiarism after they published an article on HIV patients in China. According to researchers at the center, Shao and others used data that they had produced without attribution. However, Shao said that he was simply making use of publicly-available data from the CDC in his research. After talks with the government, the authors of the paper agreed to list some of the center’s researchers as co-authors and had the publication re-run the article this month. However, that has not been enough to placate some of the researchers, who claim that the list of co-authors on the paper is inaccurate, with some authors left out and others included that should not have been. Also, the center claims that some of the original authors of the paper received the data using the usernames and passwords of others, even though the logins were provided only after approval of an ethics committee and were meant for just one person. The authors of the paper, however, argue that the center should be encouraging the widespread use of public data and not condemning it as plagiarism.

Analysis: When dealing with open access data, it’s still important to cite your sources and note where the information comes from. Just because data is open and available to the public, does not mean that the authors do not deserve attribution. Furthermore, what if there had been an issue with the data and the research based off it had become flawed? Without proper attribution, it might have been impossible to know. Simply put, open data is no different than any content published in a journal or elsewhere, it needs and deserves to be attributed, even if the goal is to encourage its use in further research. But while this story took place in China, with the push toward open research and open data, these types of challenges are going to be more and more common. Building research off of open data and plagiarism of that research is going to be a global problem over the coming years.


Ex-Mayor Exposed for Plagiarism

Finally, in another story from China, Liu Shang at the Global Times reports that Ji Jianye, a former mayor of Nanjing, which is located in East China’s Jiangsu Province, is having his doctoral thesis examined for possible plagiarism. Ji had claimed to have obtained an on-the-job doctorate in law from Soochow University in 2006 and to have completely the post-doctoral research at Renmin University of China in 2011. Ji became the mayor of Nanjing in 2010 but was recently removed and is also under investigation for suspected discipline and economic violations. However, a blog post by Zhang Yinghong, a research fellow at the Beijing Rural Economy Research Center, pointed out that Ji’s thesis was nearly identical to an earlier work of his in at least six places. Allegations also come from another professor, who also says that Ji attempted to give him a 200,000 yuan ($33,000) research fund as compensation, an offer that was declined. Ji is also under investigation for suspected discipline and economic violations, the reason he was removed as mayor.

Analysis: As the article points out, it is not uncommon for politicians in China to seek out education as a path to a promotion. Liu talks about the case of Zhang Shuguang, a former head of the transportation bureau, who not only paid bribes for “academician election” but also had 30 experts write a book for the process. What is new is that these issues of plagiarism in Chinese politics are being taken seriously and publicly addressed. Unlike countries such as Germany, which has a long history of plagiarism scandals forcing politicians out of office, China has historically been more reluctant to deal with plagiarism challenges in the open, a trend that seems to be changing. Much of this is likely to help China battle its reputation as being a haven for plagiarism and unethical behavior in both academia and politics. As China strives to become a top-tier country for research, it must also work to clean up it’s political image as well. Though Ji was clearly forced out due to other issues and his plagiarism problems are but a footnote, the fact they’re being publicly discussed and addressed is change within itself. Hopefully, this change in approach will be among the first steps to fix China’s problems with plagiarism, both perceived and real, and help promote a culture of academic honesty in the country.

CTRL-V Issue 15