I really don’t have time to write a full blog post today. I’m wrapping up one job and getting ready to launch another, and I don’t have time for the thought, writing and rewriting that an original blog post requires.
So I think I’ll lift most of my material from others or recycle from things I’ve written before. This is all OK, because my topic is plagiarism.
Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism. As I blogged more than three years ago (why do we keep addressing this topic so frequently in journalism?), I wondered whether that distinction was original with me, so I Googled the phrase. I had used it before, but I couldn’t find it anywhere else on the web. So I was pretty sure I was recycling my own observation (or perhaps one I had heard in conversation from a source long forgotten).
I am addressing plagiarism again because of the recent offenses by Gerald Posner of the Daily Beast and Zachary Kouwe of the New York Times. My friend Kelly McBride of Poynter has blogged with great advice and observations on the subject and she said much of what I want to say on this topic. So I’ll lift from her shortly. However, first I want to add one thing to what Kelly wrote and disagree with her on one point:
- Blogging and Twitter get tarred by lots of traditional journalists for somehow lowering our standards, but when it comes to attribution, they have greatly elevated our standards. On this topic, news organizations that still discourage linking to original sources are not as ethical as bloggers and tweeps who link routinely.
- Here’s where I disagree with Kelly: She wrote: “Do not cut and paste information from other sources into your notes pages. Instead, create bullet points where you synthesize the information in your own words and note the original source.” I actually encourage cutting and pasting material that you might quote or statistics you might use (this can ensure accuracy; it’s so easy to transpose figures or leave out a “not” or write “now” instead of “not,” when you’re putting things in your own words). But before you cut and paste, you should put three things in the notes: attribution to the source, a link to the original source and quotation marks. Paste the passage you are lifting into quotation marks and you don’t have to make excuses about being sloppy. When you cut and paste from notes into a story, you will notice that it’s a quote. You can add a further layer of protection against sloppiness by highlighting quotes in a particular color.
Beyond that, my views about this are not original:
I believe that honest journalism covers a vast amount of territory and plagiarism covers a disturbing lot of territory. Sloppy attribution is a pretty thin strip of land between them where every plagiarist claims to live, so I’m suspicious of anyone making that claim. No honest journalist wants to live there. If you find yourself there, you need to make a top priority of ending your sloppy ways. That excuse works once, if that. I wrote that in 2006.
Before you start to research, write. In the middle of your research, write. Expressing your own thoughts and using your own words will force your brain to flex the self-expression neurons, rather than the repetition neurons. Kelly wrote that today, and I have written and taught about the other benefits of writing as you report. It’s one of the best habits for a journalist to develop.
The plagiarist attempts, as (Michael) Clark puts it, “to soften the charge against them by misdirecting your attention and by muddying the core issues.” These evasions allow the plagiarist to displace the key question of whether his copy was adequately sourced with the more delectable conversation about the plagiarist’s mental state, his sloppy work practices, the unintended effects of modern technology, and the “meaning” of originality. Jack Shafer wrote that Wednesday, shredding Kouwe’s lame plagiarism excuses.
If it sounds familiar, check it out. I wrote that in a 2006 handout for an ethics workshop on attribution. You can Google your own passages pretty quickly to backstop your memory if you’re not sure what’s yours if you didn’t follow my cut-and-paste advice above.
Develop your own voice. Too much information on the Internet is simply repeated. Even if you aren’t doing any original reporting, you can find original expression. Again, I’m quoting Kelly today.
The Internet gives readers and interest groups powerful tools that will help them detect or even accidentally stumble across your cheating. A reader who has set up a Google news alert in an area that interests her could receive e-mail messages calling attention to your story and the story you stole from. I wrote that in a 2005 handout for an ethics workshop on keeping journalism honest in a culture that accepts cheating. The reason I sort of believe that Kouwe’s offense was one of sloppiness rather than malice is that he stole from the Wall Street Journal. Certainly no one smart enough to work for the New York Times is stupid enough to intentionally steal from a source as prominent as the journal. But Google makes it easy to spot theft from even obscure sources. And being sloppy enough to steal from the Journal is only a shade less stupid than doing it intentionally. And the result is the same: unemployment.
Do original reporting. It’s hard to duplicate the work of others when you have the knowledge to say it better. This may be the best advice in Kelly’s outstanding post today, though I’ll confess I was lazy (but not sloppy) today and didn’t follow the advice.
See, I lifted a lot of material for this post. But the quotation marks, attribution and links turn shameful plagiarism into honorable research. I really didn’t steal all of Kelly’s post, so I do recommend reading it in its entirety. But I’ll close by lifting her ending, one of five tips she offered for editors:
Coach all writers, including those with a lot of experience, to make their work transparent. Always assume the reader is asking, “How do you know that?” and answer the question in the copy.