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Lying, cheating and stealing

Those of us in the business regularly consult the Regret the Error Web site, which aggregates published corrections, to see what blunders our peers are fessing up to. Craig Silverman, the proprietor of the site, does an annual year-in-corrections roundup.

And, since 2004, he has also provided an annual roundup of reports of plagiarism and fabrication. These are, mind you, reported instances. As teachers and professors will likely concede, what gets caught appears to be a fraction of what is committed.

The range is impressive. Incidents occur at student papers, metropolitan dailies and national magazines. Columnists are well represented — perhaps they imagine that the rules don’t apply to them. People lift material from Wikipedia, from other periodicals, from Web sites, shoving it all under their own bylines.

No one is immune. In recent years, scandals of plagiarism and fabrication have blighted The New York Times, USA Today and The New Republic. Accusations of what was either plagiarism or extremely sloppy research practices have cast shadows on the work of historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Careers at The Sun have been destroyed by evidence of plagiarism and fabrication.

It falls to editors — assigning editors and copy editors — to protect the integrity of the publication. Indeed, in recent years the instances of premeditated or accidental plagiarism that have been identified in-house at The Sun have been caught by the copy desk.

This, by the way, is one good reason to make sure that the copy desk has the staff and the time to edit, rather than merely process, the copy.

For those of you who teach or edit or have some supervisory responsibility over written material, I offer some commonplace tips on what to watch for.

Changes in diction: If the vocabulary of an otherwise amateurish student writer or cliche-ridden hack journalist should abruptly grow sophisticated, lifting is likelier than an infusion from the muse.

Changes in syntax: Same thing. If a writer who struggles to cobble together a noun and a verb suddenly masters the compound-complex sentence, with attendant Ciceronian participial ornaments, it’s time to start looking elsewhere.

Specialized information: Ask Howard Baker’s question from the Watergate hearings of beloved memory: What did he know, and when did he know it? Sudden access to biographical details, historical information, ecclesiastical terminology or scientific or medical expertise has to have come from somewhere. Demand an explanation of the source.

Dubious sources: Any article based on a single source is automatically suspect — how can you tell that the source wasn’t lying? Where’s the confirmation? Similarly, anything based on second- or third-hand sources demands scrutiny. In addition, readers are justifiably suspicious of anonymous sources. Even when anonymity has been granted for good reason, such as the source’s reasonable fear of physical or economic injury, the writer should be obliged to reveal the source to the assigning editor, acquire supporting information, and give the reader as much information as is prudent about the anonymous source’s credibility.

Improbabilities: When Jack Kelley filed his famous story with USA Today about seeing, in the aftermath of a bombing, human heads rolling down the street, their eyelids still blinking, it would have been a good thing for the paper if an editor had said, “What the hell?” and followed up. In journalism, as in investment offers, if it looks too good to be true. ...

Your job is to be skeptical, not gullible. Any writer’s work ought to stand up to questioning, particularly about sourcing. So ask the questions.

As it happens, the very ease of theft that the Internet provides also offers ease of detection. Use Lexis-Nexis or Google to find information on the subject that the suspect article covers. Do searches on distinctive and anomalous phrases. (Some colleges and universities employ specialized software and run term papers through it.) Check it out.

Follow up. The first question that must always be asked when a plagiarism is detected is this: Has he/she done this before? This has to be checked out, but it won’t be unless you, who have detected the misdeed, report it to someone in authority.

Don’t agonize over fear of appearing to be an informer. If the instance you identify is a first-time mistake made out of ignorance, you may save a colleague’s career. If it turns out to be one in a pattern of lies, then the career wasn’t worth saving.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:30 PM | | Comments (6)


What's your advice for following up in delicate situations like the Jack Kelly article? This seems especially touchy because there wouldn't be a way to prove he was making up his account. Is this a situation where you skip the reporter and go straight to his or her assigning editor? And if you're that assigning editor, what then? How do you have that tough conversation?

I'd point out that a change in diction and syntax can be a sign of plagiarism even if the original writer is competent. The thing to look out for is a change in style, not necessarily an improvement.

May I also ask: does the Sun consider word-for-word plagiarism a serious matter if the original text is in the public domain? We've been having this discussion on a fiction review blog. (The blog owners have discovered a number of instances in which a best-selling author seems to have lifted text straight from public domain non-fiction books and incorporated it in her novels, but since the books are out of copyright some of the writer's fangirls are insisting it's not plagiarism. To me, if the allegations are accurate, it is plagiarism.)

A good point: What people steal is not necessarily more distinguished prose than what they are already writing.

As to public-domain material, The Sun considers any material taken verbatim from another source without crediting to be plagiarism. We consider it plagiarism, for example, if a reporter copies material from a Web site without indicating the source. What runs under your own name ought to be your own words.

Obviously if a story incorporates some material that was first reported by another news outlet (The Associated Press, The Wichita Eagle, etc.), it needs to be attributed. But is it better to include the attribution in the text itself or to put an editor's note at the end saying, "The Associated Press contributed to this report" or something similar? I wrestle with this question all the time in my own writing and haven't come up with a satisfactory solution yet.

Nobody wants to see footnotes in the newspaper, so we look for reasonable means to cite sources.

If material from another publication or source is exclusive, then it makes sense to cite that source at the point in the article at which the material is introduced: The New York Times reported that. ...

But if the material is, say, one wire services version of information being received from multiple sources, it should suffice to credit the source with a shirttail: The Associated Press contributed to this article.

If it's one AP paragaph inserted into a staff story or a story from a different wire service, credit the AP in that paragraph.

What you do depends on how much information you derive from an external source and what the qulaity of that information is.

I believe it is also a matter of how uniformly and strictly an agency follows its own rules.

I'm in grad school (for public health, not journalism). Plagiarism is severely frowned upon here. Get caught - you're out on the street. Period. Zero tolerance.

In my one writing course, our prof provided an on-line tool for us to use to check our own papers for plagiarism; she was going to use it, anyway. I found it useful to make sure I didn't unwittingly repeat my citations too closely. These issues out to be considered as applying to anyone writing for publication, not just journalists.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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