Carelessness is not plagiarism

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 6:23 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Editor’s note: This is John Merrill’s response to the cancellation of his column in the Missourian.

After some 60 years of dedicated service to journalism and teaching, I must admit that I am almost traumatized by the recent tempest in a teapot incident related to what The Missourian editor has called my plagiarism. I have written and edited more than 30 books, articles for journals and newspapers, and a column in The Missourian for three years, and this is the first time I have been accused of plagiarism. The media have stressed the monolithic negative of the term “plagiarism” and have not attempted to consider ethical and semantic aspects of the story. So I am left in public view as a villain, a linguistic thief, or worse.

I was, undoubtedly, careless in not naming The Maneater, the MU student newspaper, as the news source from which I got the several direct quotes from Women’s and Gender Studies departmental spokespersons. These direct quotes I used to spin off into my column published Nov. 4. I did not lift any sentences or paragraphs from anybody else’s writing. I look on these short, directly quoted expressions from the two women in the news story as “news-facts” and see them as in the public domain. Certainly, if what I did is plagiarism, it was unintentional and could, at the most, be considered technical, not unethical.

I apologized at once, after Missourian editor Tom Warhover surprised me with his accusation, to the editor of the Maneater for my carelessness. I wanted to apologize in The Missourian and explain my actions. The editor of the Maneater, Steve Oslica, kindly responded with these words: “Thanks so much for your compliments and rest assured that your apologies are accepted. My current apologies on the loss of your column. I always enjoyed reading it and never thought that this all would be a consequence. ...”

It has been a real joy for me to write the column. It kept my 83-year-old mind active, and I enjoyed causing people to think about issues, smile a little and get a little peeved at times. And contrary to one story, I am not a professor at the School of Journalism; I “was” a professor at the School from 1964-80.

I will have to write a book on plagiarism, going into more sophisticated aspects of the term. I am a disciple of Alfred Korzybski and general semantics and think that terms such as “plagiarism” are really incapable of much meaning. Only stone-age literalists and reactionary linguists would grant the term any kind of absolute or monolithic meaning. In ethics I am a Kantian. As such, I will say that I would be perfectly willing to see all columnists in similar situations do exactly as I did in my disputed column. The Categorical Imperative, for me, is valuable as a moral guide. I accept Kant’s belief that a good will is the only surely good thing. My will or my motivation in this case causes me no reason to despair.

I will admit that I will miss writing my column. I had at least six or eight of them over at The Missourian waiting to be used. A few of them, I think, were especially good, especially one on the senselessness of war and the wastefulness of military spending, another on my dislike generally of dogs and another on some positive suggestions for naming Columbia alleys.

Those who know me know that I would not steal anyone else’s writing. First of all, I know it’s wrong, and secondly, I feel my own writing is probably much better. Anyway, in all this I have learned who are my friends, and I much appreciate the support I have received from a large number of faculty and townspeople. None, of course, from the Journalism School administration, nor did I really expect any.

If I have caused anybody in the Journalism School any embarrassment, I am sorry. I feel that I have done far more for the School through the years than the School has done for me.

John Merrill is a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ralph Lowenstein November 14, 2007 | 1:46 p.m.


Could you please send me your e-mail address. I will send you a response that I sent to our journalism faculty (the chair sent the story to all his faculty) with a copy to Dean Mills.

You were screwed royally. How could any self-respecting school do that to a person who has given all you have over the years? What you did and the word "plagiarism" do not belong in the same story. I would be willing to bet money that I can find similar in every editorial page in the country in any given week. Obviously, none ever had your class, or they would learn the meaning of "situational ethics."

-- Ralph L.

(Report Comment)
Christine Ledbetter November 14, 2007 | 5:21 p.m.

Just a note to let you know how much I have respected your work through the years. As a 1977 grad, I'm disturbed the Missourian and University would take this action.

Christine Ledbetter

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Carrie Brown November 14, 2007 | 7:28 p.m.

Regardless of whether this offense can be described as a misdemeanor or a felony, I would just like to say that the Columbia Missourian’s handling of this matter makes me proud to be associated with the Missouri School of Journalism.

Journalists have a responsibility to be as open and honest with their readers about their own mistakes as they are when they ferret out corruption in government or otherwise perform the watchdog function that is so vital to our democracy. Rather than simply handling the matter administratively, the paper has allowed readers to see and decide for themselves the severity of this offense – links are provided here to the column, the Maneater story and Dr. Merrill’s response. Reports in other media have largely failed to examine this issue in any context, but I see this not as a personal attack on one of journalism’s most esteemed contributors to free press theory, but more as a reluctant but open accounting that invites dialogue about standards.

And as far as my own contribution to that dialogue goes, I would say that using the words of others without attribution is something that I constantly emphasize to my journalism students will not be tolerated, regardless of intentionality, because it is their job as the bearers of the future of the profession to uphold the very highest in standards for quality journalism.

Carrie Brown
PhD candidate & journalism instructor, Missouri School of Journalism
Full disclosure: I worked at the Columbia Missourian as an assistant city editor in the summer of 2006

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jim wilson November 14, 2007 | 7:57 p.m.

where has the former professor been his whole career.. he is experiencing what they call HIT PIECES...

which I have always found funny since "the media" (mainstream) claim to be unbiased and report just "the facts"

so, how could there ever be a "hit pieces" if there is never an agenda and always just the facts? (I kid of course)

and, now, of course, the latest suffering this former professor has discovered is "career death by Romenesko"

essentially three critical pieces posted on Romenesko's site are enough to completely scar an otherwise solid career.

for the Jason Blair's that's great. but for people who fall well short of his misdeeds, just wave goodbye to your good name.

less scaring, but still detremental, can be when one posts comments or writes letters to Romenesko that then get "piled upon" by the establishment as being "wrong headed"

dare anyone crosss the Journalism with a capital J establishment... career death by Romenesko... sad that there is actually a name for it...

(Report Comment)
Matt Reavy November 14, 2007 | 10:21 p.m.


You have been one of my journalistic heroes since I first took your Philosophy of Journalism class. I hear your voice echoed frequently in my own teaching. This "incident" changes that not at all.

Keep your chin up. And realize that you retain the sincere respect of many of your colleagues.

Matt Reavy

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Ralph Lowenstein November 15, 2007 | 6:39 a.m.

I did not know in my first comment that my comments would be published as an addition to John Merrill's article, but that is OK with me. I would like to point out that on their first outing, editors of placed a headline on this article that read "Columnist apologizes for carelessness." It has now been changed to "Carelessness is not plagiarism," which is the jist of the whole matter.

This was initially a case of sorry editing by the Missourian. It was obvious in the context of the column that Merrill was not inferring that he had interviewed the individuals quoted, but that he had used the quotes read elsewhere as background for a satirical column. If you were grading a student column that did that,and it did not meet your very strict standards, you would mark "attribute" next to the offending quote, and possibly lower the grade slightly. In a professional environment, which this was, you would go back to the author and ask him or her to attribute before publication. You would never consider that a person had plagiarized.

Commentary and editorials do have a different standard than straight news stories, and what John Merrill did is acceptable, in my opinion, in most newspapers in this country.

Not once did the Missourian editors admit that they had made, or could have made, an editing error. Instead they publicly trashed a man who has given so much to the school and to journalism education, and, I warrant, has never charged them a penny for his many columns.

The School of Journalism owes John Merrill a public apology for its actions in this case. Nothing less will do.

Ralph Lowenstein
Dean Emeritus
College of Journalism and Communications
University of Florida
Ph.D. UM '67

(Report Comment)
Elizabeth Connor November 15, 2007 | 1:18 p.m.

Thank you for sharing this reasoned response with those of us who believe you were treated poorly. The actions of the Missourian editors seem so bizarre to me that I suspect details or motives in this story that aren't yet public.

As I mentioned in a listserv for Mizzou alumni, I have carried around Existential Journalism -- on my bookshelf and in my head -- for 30 years. When more than one exasperated editor/employer would ask why I was so, "independent," I could reply, "Reading John Merrill at a formative age."

(When it came time for graduate school -- and I wanted to do something different than Mizzou -- I was honored that Dean Lowenstein and UF accepted my application.)

I'm glad you're seeing some humor in all this. ("First of all, I know it’s wrong, and secondly, I feel my own writing is probably much better.")

Elizabeth Connor,
BJ, '78, University of Missouri-Columbia
MAMC, '87, University of Florida

(Report Comment)
Ed Wasserman November 15, 2007 | 3:25 p.m.

Plagiarism is one of my academic interests, so the Missourian’s decision to fire John Merrill — an important figure in the development of journalism ethics — for using previously published quotes was big news to me. Having reviewed the various articles, I have to say I think the ethical basis for his dismissal was flimsy and the firing unwarranted.

The notion that quotes must always be credited to where they initially appeared sounds right, but whether it’s ethically required is a more complicated question.

Sometimes it clearly is. For instance, if the quotes are in dispute or are controversial, it is essential to indicate where they came from so the reader can judge whether to believe the words were actually spoken as reported. Alternatively, if the quotes were hard to come by and were the fruit of reporting enterprise or dogged questioning, it would be theft to appropriate them without saluting the original source.

I would say too that if the comments are themselves news, the organization that is re-reporting the story in which they figure should not only get the quotes itself, but also indicate where they first appeared.

But in Prof. Merrill’s case, the comments he quoted were innocuous boilerplate from University of Missouri bureaucrats that appeared in the student newspaper, the Maneater. The Maneater’s journalism in this instance was largely stenographic. The paper functioned as little more than a PR conduit for university administrators.

In his column, Prof. Merrill brushed past the comments to fulminate about the University of Missouri’s decision to create a full-blown department of women’s and gender studies from what until now has been a program. He might reasonably assume that his readers in the university community already had heard the news and might well have seen the quotes. They were, in his view, in the public domain.

So I think in this case the ethical requirement to attribute is debatable. What is not debatable, in my opinion, is the ethical requirement on the part of the Missourian’s management to show respect for a professor of genuine stature and bring proportionality to responding to an exceedingly minor instance where an optional courtesy was withheld.

Edward Wasserman
Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA

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Matt Reavy November 15, 2007 | 4:42 p.m.

It turns out that using unattributed quotes from news outlets is "common practice" according to national columnist Ted Rall.

You can read his comments in my blog post on the subject at:

(Report Comment)
Gene Foreman November 15, 2007 | 5:23 p.m.

As someone who was a managing editor for 33 years, I empathize with the editors of the Missourian in the decision they had to make. Lifting quotes is wrong, and an editor has to worry about sending the wrong signals to the staff – not to mention the paper’s responsibility to the audience.
However, I would not have reached the decision the Missourian editors did.
There are mitigating factors here.
First, lifting quotes is a lesser transgression than plagiarism. Labeling this as plagiarism implies that the columnist deliberately stole someone else’s phrasing. My reading of the Merrill column gives no hint of malicious intent. The columnist simply was giving background.
Second, the profession has indeed changed the rules about attributing quotes, a development that might have escaped Professor Merrill’s notice. Not so many years ago, journalists considered published quotes to be in the public domain. The profession wisely has reconsidered. The current conventional wisdom is that second-hand quotes must be credited to the journalist who heard them, both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of transparency about where the information came from.
Third, and maybe this should be first, there is Professor Merrill’s distinguished service as a pioneering scholar in the field of journalism ethics. We owe him.
All of these factors add up to handling this matter discreetly instead of disgracing an 83-year-old man who has given so much. Issuing him a pass, in my opinion, would not signal to either a rookie or a veteran that it's OK to lift quotes.

(Report Comment)
Bob MacDonald November 15, 2007 | 5:56 p.m.

I received master’s degree in journalism from Missouri in 1976 and have spent 38 years in the newspaper business, mostly with the Boston Globe. Having just read the column in question, I think charging John Merrill with plagiarism and dropping his column is ridiculous. Once Jessica Jennrich’s statements had been quoted – where ever – they were on the record, unless there is some reason to suspect that she was misquoted, which seems unlikely. Nothing in the column leads one to believe that Merrill claims to have interviewed Jennrich. Sure, the phrase “according to the Maneater” could have been inserted, but that comes under the category of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s – not plagiarism. I have fond memories of the journalism school and Dr. Merrill, and he is the last person in the world to do anything unethical. He has been treated unfairly and deserves better.

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David Wilson November 15, 2007 | 8:00 p.m.

Tom Warhover writes: "Missourian policy does not allow any writer to appropriate someone else’s words as his own, even when those words are within quotation marks" and "The newspaper’s policy prohibits 'using material from other publications without attribution.'”

Yet, in her Nov. 12 op-ed in the Missourian ("Global Action to Prevent War seeks alternatives to force and fosters negotiation"), Robin Remington quotes Sadako Ogata, former U.N. high commissioner for refugees, but she does not provide the source of the quotation. Did Remington speak directly with Ogata? I doubt it. The quotation was apparently lifted, somewhat inaccurately, from a Global Action Web site (and who knows where Global Action got it from?).

So, by Warhover's criteria, is Remington a plagiarist?

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Jessica Anderson November 17, 2007 | 2:44 p.m.

Honestly, I think the column should have been cancelled due to its author's blatant homophobia and his sexist/racist remarks. I'm pretty sure Merrill wrote that he hoped the university didn't plan to hire more female faculty, yet the only problem we're supposed to find is whether or not he lifted some quotes from a student newspaper?

There are Black Studies departments, Mr. Merrill. And Latino Studies departments. And other departments just like those you site in your penultimate column. The reason they need to exist is because every other department on campus is, essentially, White-and-Male Studies.

Perhaps you should have spoken with those involved in the creation of the department before making assumptions about its academic goals. The Maneater isn't exactly reliable journalism anyway, as I'm sure you know.

Oh, and it's not "homosexual studies." It's called Queer Theory. That exists outside Columbia, too.

Jessica Anderson
ex-Journalism Student

(Report Comment)
Joan Lowenstein November 20, 2007 | 10:57 a.m.

I am certainly glad that the last commenter identifies herself as an "ex" Journalism student because I would be surprised if a real Journalism student advocated censorship, as she does.

Is her comment the hidden reason behind why the Missourian cancelled Dr. Merrill's column? That seems logical to me because the "plagiarism" excuse is simply ridiculous. Had the editors asked, before the column was published, "Where did those quotes originate?," they might have headed off the whole controversy. Instead, they chose to impose the death penalty for a trivial attribution error.

Tell it like it is, Missourian editors. If you got criticism for the opinions you published, stand up for the right to publish opinions. Don't make up an excuse to squelch what you disagree with, especially at the expense of a respected professor's reputation.

Joan Lowenstein
BJ '78, JD UFla '83

(Report Comment)
bob stepno November 20, 2007 | 12:26 p.m.

In news reporting, I call using quoted statements that first appeared in someone else's report "poaching." (See Editorial writers and many opinion columnists are not "reporters" at all, their "columny" job is to comment on things that have already been reported. Commenting on an already-reported quote -- identifying the speaker but neglecting to say where the quote appeared -- barely qualifies as "poaching."

It's reasonable for a publication to ban all quote poaching in news reports as a matter of professional practice, especially to keep student journalists skeptical of the accuracy of other reporters' quotes -- whether in their own publication or another. (In fact, the rule might be stated as "don't trust -- or even mention the name of -- the competing publication.")

Since commentary usually involves previously reported facts or previously reported quotes, an editor working under a no-poaching policy should be alert to ask the author of a column -- such as Dr. Merrill -- whether he had gone to the extra trouble of collecting original quotes. If he didn't, a simple Web link to the story he was commenting on would resolve the problem.

(Report Comment)
Ro Sila November 27, 2007 | 11:17 a.m.

Yes, Dr. Merrill, your writing is better than almost anything you could "lift." I suspect, as others have, that the subject was more of the problem. I also had problems with it, but commentary is supposed to introduce ideas to public discourse. Instead, we get what in football is called "piling on."
For Tom Warhover to claim "higher standards" is ridiculous. Or, as also suggested in earlier comments, it was an attempt to cover up bad editing. A much more meaningful solution, and in keeping with the School's educational mission, would have been to simultaneously interview both parties about the matter.
Dr. Merrill, your star still shines bright. Mr. Warhover tarnished only himself.
Ro Sila, BJ '69

(Report Comment)
critty k November 28, 2007 | 10:35 p.m.

Are you kidding?
Do you guys know something I don't?
The man blatently took quotes from another writer's story. How hard would it have been for him to pick up the phone and call the source himself?
I don't really understand why everyone is sticking up for the man.
I am a news editor and I routinely run a search of a story quote on the Internet for this kind of thing. You'd be surprise how often it is found in another paper's story.
To fellow journalists: I'm sure you'd be singing a different tune if another paper took your quote.

U of F journalism grad

(Report Comment)
edward allen December 10, 2007 | 11:57 p.m.

I am with Critty on this one. Even columnists have an obligation to check out the accuracy of what they are quoting people as saying. What if the reporter had misquoted the source (it happens), and Merrill wove his article out of incorrect information? All it took was a phone call, but that wasn't done in this case.
As for Gene Foreman's comments, I cannot disagree more. Even in the bad old days of two or three newspaper towns, it was never acceptable practice to lift a quote out the opposition paper. If you wanted or needed it, you had to chase and get it yourself. I was taught this was not just an ethical issue, but a legal headache as well. In the wake of the Supreme Court Sullivan decision, I worked for a publisher so paranoid about being sued for libel he floated the idea of requiring reporters to get signed acknowledgments from people quoted in stories that they talked to the reporter and the quotes were accurate. The editor talked him out of the scheme, arguing it was unworkable. But it was never acceptable to lift quotes.
Finally, whatever happened to the old saw of reporting: If you haven't checked it out yourself, don't put it in the newspaper.

(Report Comment)
Kaytee Jason December 14, 2007 | 3:31 a.m.

What a bitter old man you turned out to be.

"I feel that I have done far more for the School through the years than the School has done for me," you say. What you have done is to tarnish the reputation of this institution, and by extension the diplomas of every Mizzou graduate.

You are an embarrassment, sir. The only good that has come of this is to see how many young graduates of this school have condemned your actions. Those journalists with a sense of right and wrong are bewildered to see you parse language and equivocate your actions. It is true that a man of your history within the journalism community is bound to have supporters regardless of your transgressions; it doesn't make you less of a thief, or any more of journalist.

You stole—not lifted, nor borrowed—the work of another journalist and tried to get away with a cardinal sin of not just journalism, but also of any scholarly endeavor.

We are all left to question everything you have ever done. How many times did you do something similar, or worse, before you got caught? If you had caught the Maneater "lifting" your work I wonder what you would have called it.

It has been suggested that you are a senile old man, for whom we should all have pity. If that is the case, that you haven't the mental facilities to understand what you have done, then it is time to put you out to pasture. I suspect otherwise, as you seem to be able to turn a well reasoned phrase with ease. I suspect that you are lazy and I further suspect that you never expected to get caught. Good riddance to you. Mizzou can do without you. Thanks for the ethics moment, your legacy has been reduced to a teaching exercise for future students at Missouri. Ouch.

To his defenders: ask yourselves if you would encourage the behavior he displayed in your students, writers or colleagues. Would you teach your students to obtain their quotes this way? When did the phrase "quotes of public domain" enter our lexicon? Was I too busy calling sources to notice this shift in reporting philosophy? What has happened to our values that we can even find a position from which to defend this guy?

Warhover has his flaws as a leader, the biggest being that he spends too much time in North Carolina and not enough supervising his staff, but firing this clown was a no-brainer. If you want to be critical of Tom Warhover, be critical that his journalists never get to see him in the newsroom (most of his people couldn't pick him out of a line-up). Be critical that his lax oversight allowed this guy to steal from one of his own.

-Anonymous Staff Reporter for the Missourian. (yes, that's right, I am afraid to use my name lest one of you coots retaliate)

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