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Problems of Plagiarism/Fabulism on the Web Lap Over to Celebrity Authors

Posted Sep 18 2012 12:00am

The increased incidence of web plagiarism among high school and college students has been the topic of a couple of previous notes (see:  Plagiarism, Singularity, and the Appropriate Use of Data from the WebTurnitin, Anti-Plagiarism Web Site, Aids Customers on Both Sides of the Fence ). I have suggested that there may be the perception among such students that copying content from the web does not constitute plagiarism because the authorship of web sites is not always obvious. Some of this same laxity about what constitutes plagiarism seems to be lapping over to professional journalists and celebrity authors (see:  Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth ). Below is an excerpt from a column about plagiarism from the NYT by David Carr:

If I attribute the reporting of others and manage to steer clear of proprietary intellectual property while making a cogent argument, then I can live to write another day. If, on the other hand, I manufacture or manipulate quotes or fail to process the work of others through my own thinking and writing, then the Web ...will find me out....Once spilled, news quickly becomes a commodity, so ideas...have very high value. That preciousness is part of why Jonah Lehrer, the ninja of neuroscience, became a highly prized collectible while still in his 20s....He is smarter than I will ever be, and has written three best sellers while being paid thousands of dollars for speaking engagements. The other difference? I never made up quotes, lied about it and resigned in disgrace, as Mr. Lehrer recently did....Because of a quirk of timing, the blogger-author-speaker’s troubles have been conflated with those of Fareed Zakaria, the television host-columnist-author....[T]here is a big difference between being a plagiarist...and being a fabulist. Ten days ago Mr. Zakaria, who has a show on CNN and columns in Time and The Washington Post, acknowledged plagiarizing content for a column in Time. He apologized, was suspended, and Time and CNN investigated whether there was a deeper problem and decided there was not. He was reinstated on Thursday. End of story. As for Mr. Lehrer, he was first found to have plagiarized himself, rerunning parts of his books and previous writings for different publications, which is an offense against his employers, not his readers. Then Michael C. Moynihan, writing in Tablet Magazine, found that Mr. Lehrer, in his book “Imagine,” had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most scrutinized cultural figures in the hemisphere. As the evidence mounted, Mr. Lehrer first dissembled to hide his transgressions and when that didn’t work, he resigned from The New Yorker....The self-cleaning tendencies of the Web got credit for unearthing the misconduct in the first place. Then again, the Web’s ferocious appetite for content — you are only as visible as your last post, as Clay Shirky recently said to me — probably had something to do with why Mr. Lehrer tried to feed the beast with retreads and half-baked work.

I few of the ideas in this article caught my attention. The first is what is referred to as the "self-cleaning tendencies of the web." Content of the web never disappears, it lends itself to amateur sleuthing when suspect, and is subject to echoic effects such that a minor slip by a celebrity like Jonah Lehrer can be publicized in a short time. And what was Lehrer's major slip? Probably fabricating a quote from a cultural icon like Bob Dylan. I suspect that he would not have gotten in as much trouble so quickly if he had fabricated a quote from Immanuel Kant.

But back to web-enabled plagiarism. I believe that the ease of cut-and-paste of content from the web (and also EMRs, by the way) facilitates a mentality that tolerates, if not encourages, copying. However, as a long-time blogger, I understand the rules of the game and imagine that readers may frequently quote bloggers without attribution. However, my personal goal for Lab Soft News is to stimulate discussion about lab and healthcare issues. I believe that this goal is far more important than correctness of authorship. On another level and as emphasized above, the web has an enormous appetite for content. Celebrity authors are merely trying to "feed the beast" on a daily basis with new content and mistakes do happen with the rapid turnaround required by web authorship.

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