I raised the question in a correspondence this week with a columnist who use a lot of identical and similar words from a magazine article. And I raised them with the columnist’s editor, who rejected the magazine writer’s accusation that he had been plagiarized.
The magazine writer, Dan Carlinsky, called the matter to my attention after I had written some posts about plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria. I was reluctant to take up the case. My plate is full with a variety of personal and professional matters, and I’m reluctant to start becoming a plagiarism cop. But I decided to hear him out, and the editor’s dismissive response helped me decide that I needed to blog about this.
I take plagiarism and attribution seriously, and the editor, publisher and corporate executive Carlinsky dealt with in this case didn’t appear to take the matter seriously.
This is going to be a long post, because I’m quoting the stories and some emails about the stories extensively. I hope you’ll stick with it and answer the questions I ask at the end. Before I proceed, though, I should note that I emailed four people involved, inviting their response:
- The columnist, Kevin Collier of the Grand Haven Tribune in Michigan.
- Cheryl Welch, who was director of content and audience development at the Grand Haven Tribune and is now managing editor for Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich. If you’re wondering about that long title she had at the Tribune, the headline announcing her departure called her “editor.”
- Kevin Hook, publisher of the Tribune.
- Doug Phares, president of the Sandusky Newspaper Division.
Carlinsky had emailed Welch, Hook and Phares about his accusations of plagiarism and copyright violation, so I wanted to give them and Collier a chance to respond before I published anything about the case. My only response was a short email from Phares:
Mr. Buttry, we look forward to reading your blog entry if you choose to write one.
So I’ll let their emails to Carlinsky speak for them. They appear to be genuine and Phares’ response seems to indicate they are at least familiar with his accusations.
Carlinsky is an author and freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, and other publications. He spent five years as vice president/contracts at the American Society of Journalists and Authors. In 2006 or 2007, he wrote a story for Chicago magazine about the life and death a century earlier of romance novelist Myrtle Reed. Reed was married in Grand Haven, Mich., a city on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. (In his later emails to the Tribune, Carlinsky said the story was published 2006. The online version says it was published June 7, 2007.)
Carlinsky didn’t cite a lot of specific sources in his story, but included this umbrella attribution:
Aided by dozens of contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, commentaries by those who knew her, court papers, and Reed’s own books and letters, I made a journey into a shaded corner of Chicago society at the turn of the last century.
In 2012, Collier wrote a column about Reed’s Grand Haven connection (that link will take you to a paywall; Carlinsky sent me a screen grab of the column that was readable but fuzzy, so I’m not posting it here).
Collier’s column cited stories from the Grand Haven Tribune files as well as stories from the Chicago Tribune and New York Times. He didn’t mention Chicago magazine, but Carlinsky noted several similarities:
In the Chicago magazine story, Carlinsky wrote:
McCullough could rarely get anywhere on time, so when he didn’t show up at Dearborn Station for their wedding trip, Reed, hardly surprised, left without him. He caught up with her 12 hours later, explaining that he had been having his shoes shined.
Collier’s column said:
Reportedly, husband James Sydney McCullough rarely arrived anywhere on time. When he didn’t show up at the Dearborn, Mich., station for their wedding trip, Reed, hardly surprised, left without him. He caught up with her 12 hours later, explaining that he had been having his shoes shined.
While the first few words have been rewritten slightly, the final 28 words of each paragraph are identical.
They planned a December 1906 wedding, but, fearful of publicity, they advanced the date to October 22nd and slipped off across the lake to Grand Haven, Michigan, where they were quietly married in St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The couple had planned a December wedding, but because of her notoriety and fearful of publicity, they advanced the date to Oct. 22, and slipped across the lake to Grand Haven to be quietly married in St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Again, there’s a little rewriting, but 29 of the words in those two passages are identical, including 12 consecutive words in one stretch.
His tardiness would only get worse, and become one of the chief issues in their relationship.
His tardiness would only get worse, and become one of the chief issues in their relationship.
Sixteen consecutive identical words.
There was an annual Husband Show, in which the men competed at sewing a button, harnessing a corset, and guessing the price of a hat.
Reed-McCullough threw an annual “Husband Show,” in which the men competed at sewing a button, harnessing a corset, and guessing the price of a hat.
The final 22 words are identical.
Reed and her man (she called him “Binkie,” after a dog in a Rudyard Kipling tale) … He was drinking, and he began to be absent more and more.
She called her husband “Binkie,” after a dog in a Rudyard Kipling tale. James took to drinking and became abusive and absent more and more.
Those are the kinds of passages that probably wouldn’t need quotation marks if Carlinsky’s piece were credited somewhere. The “absent more and more” phrase is short but distinctive. The wording of the Binkie/Kipling reference is not distinctive, and Carlinsky and Collier conceivably could have found that tidbit separately (perhaps from the same source) and come up with similar phrasing (identical in nine consecutive words) on their own. By itself, this one doesn’t scream plagiarism, but it adds to the pattern of the more damning paragraphs.
A Carlinsky sidebar listed seven quotes about men from Reed’s writing. Collier used the first five quotes in his column.
When the column came to Carlinsky’s attention more than a year after it was published, the similarities prompted him to write to Welch on May 28, 2013:
I am saddened to have to report to you that the “Strange Grand Haven” column (“Romance novelist married in GH”) in the Grand Haven Tribune of March 19, 2012 was in substantial part plagiarized from an article of mine published in Chicago magazine in August 2006. Follow the links and compare the two; you will find several paragraphs in the Tribune lifted virtually word for word.
I take copyright and infringement very, very seriously. No doubt you do too, as is clear from the copyright statement on your parent company’s website.
Curious to know if this was just a blip in the columnist’s body of work, I spot-checked a few other “Strange Grand Haven” entries and easily turned up another column with several sentences taken verbatim from — of all sources — Wikipedia. That one is not my personal concern, but it’s a practice you should consider grossly uncomfortable and thoroughly unacceptable, and one your readers should know about.
For a writer to represent purloined words, sentences and paragraphs as his own is forbidden in every classroom and reputable newsroom in the country. I trust the practice is treated that way at the Tribune.
Please do the appropriate investigation and get back to me with your plan to remedy the situation and to discuss reasonable compensation for this unauthorized use.
I should note here that much of the ensuing email exchange, which I will share here, focused more on the copyright issue than on the plagiarism issue. They overlap but are distinct issues. Copyright is a legal matter and may or may not involve attribution. For instance, if the Tribune had published the article in its entirety, with Carlinsky’s byline and credit to Chicago magazine, that still could be a copyright violation.
Plagiarism is a matter of journalism ethics, not law. In Telling the Truth and Nothing But, a 2013 e-book on plagiarism and fabrication to which I was a contributor, we defined plagiarism as “presenting someone else’s language or work as your own.”
My focus here is on plagiarism, rather than copyright violation.
Welch responded to Carlinsky on May 29, 2013, that she would look into the matter and get back to him. On July 8, 2013, after a second email from Carlinsky, she sent this response:
We did look into the allegations and determined that the Strange Grand Haven column was written with information gleaned from various historical New York Times and Chicago Tribune articles, as well as the actual books, those written by the lady in question and others, from the Library of Congress and her biography. Your piece, which appeared several years ago, also included some of the same information from apparently the same sources. The only section that appeared to be nearly identical to the language you used was a paragraph about her husband arriving late to the train station, to which Kevin Collier added the word, ‘reportedly’ which would indicate that that paragraph of information came from other reports. Collier also included additional information that you didn’t have, and you had information that Collier didn’t include. After examination, I don’t see this as a case of plagiarism, nor copyright infringement.
Carlinsky responded the same day:
I’m saddened to read your defensive posture. It doesn’t fit the circumstances.
You are quite wrong when you refer to Collier’s paragraph 8 as “the only section that appeared to be nearly identical to the language you used.” Please see, in addition to the passage you concede, his paragraph 3 (a good chunk of which is taken straight from my Chicago magazine piece), the first half of paragraph 9 (ditto), and paragraphs 10 and 11 (much of both lifted wholesale, or phrase for phrase) – not just the information but the wording. Also note that the five Reed quotes used in Collier’s column, his paragraphs 13-17, just happen to be the first five of the seven in my piece, an interesting coincidence of compilation given the number of Reed’s writings and published interviews that might have served as source material for the writer.
What’s more, you are even wronger if you wish to argue that the word “reportedly” at the start of his paragraph 8 lets the columnist off the hook, or if you maintain that the fact that the two pieces do not contain precisely the same information bolsters your case that no transgression was committed. As you certainly know, copyright covers not facts or ideas but the expression of facts and ideas. It is my expression that Collier lifted, repeatedly and with almost no variation at all. Yes, he went to sources beyond my article for some of his information. He may or may not have lifted wording from those sources as well — I haven’t yet checked — but it’s very clear that what he took from my piece he failed to paraphrase with even the care that a good middle school student would use when lifting from Wikipedia for a term paper. If there’s a set of cardinal principles of the newspaper business, right up there after Get it Right is surely Don’t Use Someone Else’s Words as if They’re Your Own. Apparently, the Tribune doesn’t subscribe to that one.
If you don’t see this practice by a Tribune employee as wrong, I’ll strongly disagree and, reluctantly, take the matter to ownership and perhaps bring our disagreement to the attention of outside interested parties for their judgment.
In follow-up emails with Welch, Hook and Phares, Carlinsky suggested $2,500 as compensation for his copyright violation. They steadfastly admitted no wrong, concluding with this message from Phares:
I reviewed your concern after you were not satisfied with the response from the Grand Haven Tribune staff. Doing so included reading through your work, the column they published and the various supporting sources provided already to you. I’ve come to the same conclusion originally offered. The minimal amount of material used in this column fits comfortably within the doctrine of fair use.
We consider this matter resolved on our side and do not intend to engage further.
I should note that we don’t know whether the executives handled the matter differently internally than they did in their correspondence with Carlinsky. We might not know whether anyone was disciplined or reprimanded privately in this case, but they took a different position toward Carlinsky because he was seeking compensation. I asked that question and others in my email, but, as you saw, Phares did not respond to my questions.
As I’ve noted above, copyright and plagiarism are not the same thing. The fair-use doctrine of copyright is a complex area of law, and courts have not defined a specific amount of material that you can rip off from another source without violating copyright. Carlinsky did not sue the Grand Haven seeking compensation, so we can’t know who’s right about whether that was a copyright violation. Given the small amount he was seeking, I doubt if the company would have bothered trying that fair-use defense in court. A good lawyer would have advised them to settle rather than pay the lawyer more than Carlinsky was asking and let a judge or jury study the similarities between the two stories.
But I’m interested in your thoughts on the ethics of this case:
Collier had one similar paragraph with 28 consecutive identical words, another paragraph with 22 consecutive identical words and another with 16 consecutive identical words. Still another paragraph had 29 identical words, though they weren’t all consecutive. And there were other similarities, including using five of the seven Reed quotes that Carlinsky used.
In the paragraph where Welch acknowledged similarities to Carlinsky’s work, she said the use of the word “reportedly” indicated that the paragraph came from other reports. What’s your view on whether that’s sufficient attribution: