Missourian forced to re-affirm its standards — the hard way

Friday, November 9, 2007 | 3:00 p.m. CST; updated 4:55 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

Last Sunday, columnist John Merrill wrote about the MU Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Quotes and other phrases in the column were repeated directly from an Oct. 5 article in The Maneater without crediting that newspaper or the article’s author, Anna Koeppel.

That was wrong.

The Missourian’s plagiarism policy

Plagiarism will not be tolerated. The following is a listing of what constitutes plagiarism in the newsroom: — Taking material verbatim from the archive. Even if the article was printed in the Missourian, it is still someone else’s work. Put it in your own words or attribute it to the Missourian “as previously reported in the Missourian.” — Using material verbatim from the wire. Localizing wire stories is encouraged, but the wire service should be given a credit line. — Using material from other publications without attribution. — Using news releases verbatim. — Using material off a Web site verbatim.

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Missourian policy does not allow any writer to appropriate someone else’s words as his own, even when those words are within quotation marks. In the column, three quotes, and about half a sentence, were taken from Koeppel’s story.

Several journalists and journalism educators I spoke with referred to the use as the ethical equivalent of a misdemeanor, not a felony.

I believe the Missourian, and the School of Journalism, must hold itself to a higher standard.

The newspaper’s policy prohibits “using material from other publications without attribution.”

As such, the Missourian will no longer run columns by Professor Merrill.

Koeppel talked to me on Tuesday. I discussed the incident with Merrill, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, on Wednesday. He apologized in a letter on Thursday.

“Let me say first that I am truly sorry about the plagiarism in my column about Women’s and Gender Studies,” he began. “I thought I had mentioned The Maneater as the source from which I got the few and scattered quotes I used to spin off into my column. I always am sensitive to that. I thought I had done it in that column and was really surprised, when you called me in, to find that I had neglected to do this. …

“But I assure you that it was ‘unintentional’ plagiarism, and I had no reason to make it look as if I got these quotes from the sources directly. I was using them as a springboard for my opinion. But I did it, and I’m sorry. Careless, I’ll admit, but not intentional. All these dozens and dozens of columns and some 30 books and innumerable magazine and newspaper articles and never before have I been accused of plagiarism.”

Missourian editors reviewed the past year of columns by Professor Merrill. None had the same amount of lifted material as the one Sunday; however, there were five more columns in which at least one quote had been taken from other publications without attribution.

By directly quoting sources, Professor Merrill implies to the reader that he spoke with those people. There was no independent verification of facts through original reporting. A reader should be able to judge the source of information, including whether information was taken from other publications.

Journalists can make mistakes, sometimes unconsciously using a sentence here or a phrase there. Taking quotes from an Associated Press story without credit was common practice 20 years ago. (The AP is a cooperative of newspapers. Thus, it went, it wasn’t stealing if you already own it. That standard has been discredited.)

It is with no joy that I write this. I’ve enjoyed our conversations over the years. I hope we’ll have many more.

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clayton lovelace November 18, 2007 | 10:34 p.m.

I can tell you my current donation to the University of Missouri is my last one because of your action.
I graduated in the late 60's from the journalism school, and I have good memories of John Merrill.
But I can tell you this. Whether I had ever heard of him or not, your decision to fire him because of unattributed quotes is ridiculous overkill. Apologies sure. But taking unattributed quotes and making it seem to world that he goes around lifting the meat of his columns is pathetic. And, very, very wrong.
I think he was canned because of what he wrote about and plagiarism was a handy tool.
I hate plagiarism and I preach to my students relentlessly about crediting information. But firing him for unattributed quotes.....I want no part of a university that deals in this kind of incredible overreaction, and I think ulterior motives.
I think you have done something far worse than Merrill's unattributed quotes.
Jack Lovelace
BJ 1968
Fort Collins, Colorado

(Report Comment)
Crystal Calhoun December 11, 2007 | 12:59 p.m.

Jack Lovelace: "Fire him"? Does dropping a man's column really constitute firing him? Or possibly I've missed some bit of news that says Professor Merrill is no longer a professor as a result of this incident.

(Report Comment)

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