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Self-plagiarism in Journalism

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Oct 9, 2013 1:22:00 PM

toronto-star-logoRecently, The Star in Toronto published a note from the paper’s public editor, Kathy English, drawing attention to a case of plagiarism committed by one of the paper’s interns. However, what made the case unusual was that the intern was not accused of lifting content from another paper, but rather, from an earlier article at The Star.

The incident was the result of a September 30th, 2013 article, written by an intern, Marc Ellison, on the subject of personalized licence plates that are forbidden by the government. That article, according to the public editor, borrowed six paragraphs from a 2010 article written by staff writer Daniel Dale on the same topic.

Ellison, for his part, has admitted to the plagiarism, calling it “frankly inexcusable” and blames it on trying to do too much in the time he had. Though no other problems were found in Ellison’s work, he no longer works at the paper.

Ellison instead took to his personal blog, where he wrote about the incident, calling it “Professional harikiri.” (sic) There, he said he knew that the content reuse was not up to his standards and was “not right”. He also added that he had never plagiarized before.

But despite the reaction to the incident, borrowing content from earlier reports at a newspaper isn’t uncommon. Many papers reuse sentences, paragraphs or passages from earlier reports in newer ones, often without attribution.

The reason for this is that, many times, there is only one appropriate way to say something in a newspaper, whether it is for legal reasons or clarity. Also, it’s sometimes easier to just copy and paste a relevant passage, especially of background information, than to try and rewrite it dozens of times.

However, in the case of Ellison, the copying went well beyond the boundaries of what most newspapers would find acceptable. Not only is six paragraphs a very large sampling to copy and paste, but the nature of the content wasn’t background information, but rather, creative feature writing.

But while Ellison’s case is seemingly non-controversial, with even Ellison himself admitting that it was inappropriate, it raises some serious questions for journalists. When and how is it acceptable to incorporate earlier work by the paper in new ones? When should previous authors be attributed? What about wire services and external sources?

The truth is that there is a wide swatch of gray area between copying a sentence or two for legal reasons and lifting six creative paragraphs as a shortcut, but somewhere in that space sits a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Where that line sits is a question every publication must wrestle with.

Fortunately, one issue newspapers don’t have to wrangle with when it comes to self plagiarism is copyright. Since the publication is the copyright holder in both the original and the new work, there isn’t much legal risk involved. However, the ethical risk of recycling content remains and that is why The Star responded as strongly as it did.

All in all, journalism has a tough question to mull over and it’s one that is only going to grow in importance. Reusing content is going to become more common as publications are faced with shrinking news rooms and tighter deadlines, that’s going to make setting boundaries and enforcing those boundaries more important than ever.


The Ethics of Self-plagiarism [PDF]

Self-plagiarism Webcast [Video]