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Journalists could be losers in plagiarism war

Journalists could be losers in plagiarism war
People & Culture
Plagiarism remains a cardinal sin in journalism, for good reason, writes Robert Holloway, DL News' ombudsman.
  • American academics are engaged in what some have called a plagiarism war.
  • Journalists are likely to get caught in the crossfire.
  • Resisting plagiarism must be a priority for the media.

Robert Holloway is a columnist and an award-winning ombudsman at DL News. Views expressed are his own.

The first casualty in the academic plagiarism wars was political scientist Claudine Gay. She resigned as president of Harvard University on January 2.

She was accused of plagiarism in her doctoral thesis and other works, but her supporters say she was forced out for political reasons.

She and two other university presidents were grilled at a Congressional hearing on December 5 into anti-Semitism at Harvard and other campuses.

Gay, the first black woman president of Harvard, described the hearing as “a well-laid trap” and part of “a broader war to unravel public faith in the pillars of American society.”

Jonathan Bailey, blogger and founder of Plagiarism Today, said the case was a watershed.

“Though we’ve had other plagiarism scandals in recent years, none drew this much attention and none directly led to the resignation of a divisive figure,” he told me in an e-mail.

Accusations of plagiarism are now being used “as not just a way to insult or demean a person, but as a way to actively harm their career,” he added.

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“These investigations aren’t interested in improving academic or research integrity, they’re interested in hurting political opponents.”

‘It’s likely that we’ll see journalists and publications caught in this battle too’

—  Jonathan Bailey

It is beyond the scope of this column to discuss the political and racial implications of the case.

“The weaponisation of plagiarism is a very real risk,” Bailey said. “It’s likely that we’ll see journalists and publications caught in this battle too, likely for perceived or real loyalties to one side or another.”

Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman was one of those who pushed for Gay’s removal, Business Insider reported.

But about two weeks after Gay’s defenestration, Ackman himself threatened to sue Business Insider over the business publication’s reporting of his wife, Neri Oxman.

‘Business Insider is toast’

—  Bill Ackman

The business news outlet reported that Oxman, who developed the process of “material ecology,” had plagiarised parts of her doctoral thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Business Insider is toast,” Ackman posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “You will hear from us in a few weeks. It will look something like this: At my signal, unleash hell.”

He then shared a clip from the movie “Gladiator.”

Oxman has, in a separate tweet, admitted that in a few places in her thesis she had failed “to place the subject language in quotation marks.”

That “would be the proper approach for crediting the work,” she said. “I regret and apologise for these errors.”

Business Insider and its parent company, Axel Springer, have said they stand by the outlet’s reporting.

Gay acknowledged in an op-ed piece in The New York Times that “my critics found instances in my academic writings where some material duplicated other scholars’ language, without proper attribution.”

But she stopped short of an apology, defended “the integrity of my research,” and said she had never claimed credit for the work of others.

Among those who came to Gay’s defence, Charles Selfie, a mathematician and professor at New York University, described plagiarism as “perhaps the mildest academic sin.” It was, he said, less serious than falsification and fabrication of data.

Gay’s critics had not challenged the core ideas in her work but only “only chipped away at the edges,” Selfie wrote in The New York Times.

He also hinted that Gay’s peer reviewers were partly to blame.

“While universities richly reward a professor’s own research output, they care almost nothing about their professors’ role in checking others’ work,” he said. They fobbed off the task of checking to “hapless postgrad students”.

In contrast, Tyler Austin Harper, assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College, rejected claims that “repeating banal phrases” and “careless cutting and pasting” were minor – and common – offences

“Using watery euphemisms to refer to blatant plagiarism debases our profession, and the assertion that everyone plagiarises if you just look hard enough debases it further,” Harper wrote in The Atlantic.

While their codes of ethics are essentially the same, academics and journalists have a different approach to plagiarism.

“In academia, there’s often less of a focus on specific words and more of a focus on if the information and research is original,” Bailey said. “With journalism, everyone has the same information, so it’s largely down to the specific words and reporting.”

Reporters and professors also work to different deadlines. Academic articles, to say nothing of books, are usually much longer than media reports.

They typically require more research and take longer to write. They often have footnotes and bibliographies. They are peer reviewed before publication, a more rigorous process than newspaper editing.

Failure to detect plagiarism is potentially more embarrassing for journalists. It should be easier to spot in a newspaper article than in a long academic paper.

Moreover, academics usually write for a smaller readership, some of whom are willing to excuse what they see as minor indiscretions or technical oversights.

The most notorious case of plagiarism in the American media was that of Jason Blair, who resigned from The New York Times in May 2003.

An investigation revealed plagiarism and fabrication in his reports on the families of US soldiers killed or injured in Iraq, and on a sniper in the Washington area.

In a 7,000-word apology to its readers, the paper said it had reached “a low point in its 152-year history”.

Some academics may be ready to excuse what they see as mild forms of plagiarism because — unlike, for example, forgery — it is not a crime. The penalties are usually far less severe.

A forger makes a copy of something and presents it as an original. Its value lies in its purported authenticity.

A painting by Joe Smith of three apples and a jug might sell for $50. It could fetch $50 million if he were able to persuade a buyer that it was by Cézanne.

The price reflects the rarity of Cézanne’s work as well as the artist’s reputation. Producing or selling a fake undermines public faith in the honesty and expertise of the dealer and — in the case of luxury goods — of the manufacturer too.

Trading in counterfeit Rolex watches is punishable by up to 10 years in prison in Britain or the United States. Forging a bank note can earn you twice that.

A plagiarist, on the other hand, copies someone else’s work and tries to pass it off as his own. He benefits from time and effort saved as well as from a reputation for skills that he may not possess.

The loss to the original author may be described as an opportunity cost. The chief losers are the publication which accepts the plagiarist’s offer and may suffer a loss of reputation, and the profession itself.

Two New York Times editors resigned after an investigation into why Jason Blair was hired and promoted to a position that could have gone to a better reporter.

The Society of Professional Journalists said that with the Blair case, the profession “suffered perhaps the biggest blow to its credibility in US history”.

The International Federation of Journalists’ Declaration of Principles puts plagiarism first on its list of grave professional offences, ahead of malicious misrepresentation, libel and bribe-taking. The list is not a hierarchy, but it suggests that resisting plagiarism is a high priority.

It must remain so.

Have you been the victim of plagiarism? Are you worried about plagiarism in the media? You may share your experiences with me at