DEAR READER: Another crack at an old problem of plagiarism

Saturday, April 20, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:59 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dear Reader,

Let’s say you feel passionate about the status of Medicaid. You write a letter to the editor, and it’s published in the Missourian. Then you send it on to a friend in another town. She likes it and sends the letter to her town’s editor, but with her name on it.


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It’s a case of copying for a cause and with the approval of the original author. Is it OK?

Well, perhaps for you it is. After all, you want to get your message out. But the second newspaper wasn’t happy that it printed the letter, because a name attached to a letter is supposed to mean that person wrote it.

That scenario played out recently in the Missourian. This was a small and largely innocent case. Normally editors here are looking out for form letters written by big lobbying firms. You might have seen them in chain email, usually with a blank for your name and instructions to send to your newspaper or nearest politician.

With lots of diligence and a little luck, you won’t see them in the Missourian.

We all learned in grade school that it’s wrong to copy someone else’s work and call it our own. Today, it’s easier than ever to copy original material from all over the world through the wonders of digital transmission. At the same time, the line of what’s acceptable has blurred.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent most of a day at a “national summit” on plagiarism and fabrication. The event, and the report prior to it, was extraordinary in the number of news associations and other organizations that worked together on the problem. The summit was held during the American Copy Editors Society convention in St. Louis.

Most of the day was spent on plagiarism from within, not the occasional copied letter to the editor.

The committee produced a report that reaffirmed zero tolerance for plagiarism: “Every act of plagiarism betrays the public’s trust, violates the creator of the original material and diminishes the offender, our craft and our industry.”

The report suggested ways to improve plagiarism and fabrication detection. Some of them:

  • Do random spot checks after publication. At The Standard-Times in New Bedford, Mass., an editor each week randomly picks an article to check from each of three reporters, according to the report.
  • Encourage reporters to put interviews on audio or video. That way, an editor can go back and check a quote.
  • Put policies in place to assess whether plagiarism occurred and how to assess the severity.

One recommendation the Missourian won’t enact is to make detected instances public. Most of the work here is by students, and there are laws to protect their privacy. Plagiarism and fabrication, however, fall under Mizzou’s rules for academic honesty and the Missourian’s zero tolerance policy. Before they set foot in the Missourian, students go through courses that include case studies and other examples.

Other safeguards at the Missourian:

  • The accuracy check policy is a system in which quotes and pertinent facts are checked with interview subjects after a story is written but before it is published. The purpose is accuracy, but it’s also another opportunity for editors to stop and ask reporters and photographers how and where they got their information. The system at Vox magazine is even more rigorous because the fact-checking is done by an editor, not the original reporter.
  • Copy desk editors have always been the cops on the beat of the newsroom. They are taught to be a suspicious lot, and the few cases of plagiarism that have run across my desk in the past decade have come from sharp-eyed copy editors.
  • Every staff course has written policies on plagiarism and fabrication. The consequences are serious: failure of the class and disclosure to MU administration for other potential consequences

The biggest remedy, though, is the simplest: attribution. Just as the Internet has provided more opportunities, it has also allowed us to be more transparent than ever about the sources of information.

Not much beats “So-and-So said” for attribution. But we can also link to So-and-So’s bio or to the research So-and-So cites. The Missourian uses DocumentCloud to upload original documents and Storify to pull full tweets and photos from people's social media accounts.

As the committee says, it’s not just smart to use the new digital tools; it’s a practice in ethical reporting.

At the plagiarism summit, there was a lot of talk about “the serial plagiarist.” A scary title. I’m sure they’re out there — we’ve seen examples on the national level. More commonplace are the occasional and the unwitting. It’s too easy to cut and paste. There’s too little thought that goes into what it means to create original work.

The principles are easy, though: Don’t cheat. Don’t lie.


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