Eight reasons plagiarism sucks.

Media criticism.
March 7 2008 5:54 PM

Eight Reasons Plagiarism Sucks

It harms readers, in its heart beats a lie, it corrupts, and five more.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Readers have stormed my inbox, accusing me of "picking nits" in the latest of my two columns about the plagiarism of New York Times reporter Alexei Barrionuevo (Feb. 27 and March 5). One reader found my charge "hyperactive." Another insisted that Barrionuevo's lifting from Bloomberg News was akin to "repeating the bus schedule," hence no foul. Another ridiculed me, saying I exist inside an "echo chamber" of journalists, academics, and bloggers who "care about this crap."

As I read that last note, I realized that I needed to explain in detail why plagiarism matters and why journalists, academics, and bloggers are right to care about it. In order of importance, here are my eight reasons plagiarism sucks:

It swindles readers. One of my correspondents mistakenly thought that what disturbed me most about plagiarism was that it robs other writers of their labors. That's the least of my problems. Plagiarism burns me up because it violates the implied warranty that comes with every piece of journalism. Unless qualified with citations or disclaimers such as "compiled from wire reports," news articles are supposed to be original work.

When a reporter appropriates the words of another without credit, he gives the reader the mistaken impression that he has independently verified the primary facts in his story. So, if the first reporter got stuff wrong—dates, names, places, events—the lazy and corrupt second reporter will end up cheating the reader out of the true story.

(Plagiarism aside, some editors discourage their reporters from milking Nexis for research not because they worry about their guys pinching but because they worry about their guys inadvertently retransmitting other guys' mistakes and clichés, setting them ever deeper in stone.)

Journalism is about truth, not lies. I cringe at writing those precious words, but like Samantha Power, I've released them and can't yank them back. A reporter who abducts the work of another reporter without giving credit tells a skeezy lie with every keyboard stroke. "I wrote that," he lies. The plagiarist's fraud dissolves the trust between his publication and its reader; it injures the reader (of course), the plagiarist's publication, the plagiarist's colleagues, and the plagiarist's profession. (Good lord, am I starting to sound like a weepy Committee of Concerned Journalists parishioner?)

It corrupts the craft. This is really a corollary of "Harms Readers" and "Truth, Not Lies." Every plagiarism bust reinforces the view of readers and viewers who already believe the profession is filled with lying, psychopathic scum. Bank robbers injure only the banks they rob. Plagiarists injure the entire journalism profession, even the most scrupulous and honest of practitioners.

It promotes the dishonest. One path to journalistic success is productivity. Another is writing deeply sourced stories. The industrious plagiarist combines both techniques, routinely out-producing his colleagues with stolen, excellent copy. When the time comes to appoint a new London bureau chief or a new deputy editor for metro, who is going to get the slot: the good reporter or the supercharged, not-yet-apprehended plagiarist. Nobody will deny that rewarding cheaters for cheating sucks. But again, the greatest injury isn't done to other journalists but to readers. When the less-talented fellow gets the better job, the paper (or magazine or Web site or broadcast) suffers, and that suffering is inflicted upon readers.

It denigrates the hard work of others. How often do convicted plagiarists or their apologists attempt to blot away the plagiarists' crimes by saying, "Oh, the borrowing was trivial." Or, "That was just a boilerplate story." They'll insist that there are only so many ways to write "Joe Doe, the famous rope climber, died in his bed last night from a gunshot wound," and that such news story similarities are inevitable.

The problem with the boilerplate excuse is that news stories written by nonplagiarists almost never overlap the way the stories written by plagiarists do. I thought I made this point in my last Barrionuevo story by publishing a sidebar that stacked the opening paragraphs from his "mad cow" story against those from the Bloomberg story he lifted from and the accounts published by the globeandmail.com and the Omaha World-Herald. Except for Barrionuevo, each journalist quoted in the sidebar brought to the alleged boilerplate their unique news judgment.

If you think it's easy to write compelling boilerplate, just try.

It's not what we paid for. No New York Times subscriber should have to pay in excess of $600 a year for rewritten Bloomberg News copy.

It's not theft—it's something worse. Lots of people hate plagiarism because they consider it theft. I'm not really a member of that party, even if I've used the words theft, stealing, crime, and the like in my plagiarism columns. There is no crime called "plagiarism." If somebody publishes an entire paragraph of mine without credit, you can't really say that he's stolen it from Slate. My words can still be found at the same old URL, and the local sheriff can't charge the perpetrator with felony theft even if he thinks the perp nicked my piece. (However, a word-thief can be served with a civil complaint alleging copyright infringement, or if the pilfering is grand enough a U.S. attorney may decide to charge him with the felony of  willful copyright infringement.) *

The reason plagiarism is worse than theft is because the only real remedies for it are shame and ostracism, both of which have proved very poor deterrents. Most plagiarists find a way back into the business, as Trudy Lieberman reported in the Columbia Journalism Review.

It's vampiric. Before anybody points the plagiarism gun at me, please allow me to credit my Slate colleague David Plotz with that witty formulation. "The plagiarist is, in a minor way, the cop who frames innocents, the doctor who kills his patients. The plagiarist violates the essential rule of his trade. He steals the lifeblood of a colleague," Plotz observed.

To put it in the modern vernacular, plagiarism sucks.

******

Go ahead, torment me with e-mail about the "anxiety of influence" at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. And by the way, thanks again to all my Slate buddies who fed me their best ideas. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Suck in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, March 10, 2008: The original version of this article erred in referring to a perp being "charged with a civil complaint." No one can be charged with a complaint, only served. It also mistakenly stated that all copyright infringement cases are civil cases. Willful copyright infringement is a criminal offense. The copy has been corrected. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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