From the Content Director: You Can't Say That Again
When the news broke that author Jonah Lehrer had been recycling his own writing in publications including The Wall Street Journal and Wired, and when he was then found to have fabricated a quote by Bob Dylan in his new book "Imagine" (giving the book's title an ironic twist), I couldn't help but puzzle over it. Why would someone so apparently intelligent, well-educated and in possession of the plum job of New Yorker staff writer do this? Was it hubris? A self-destructive tendency? Was he simply in a hurry?
The journalistic world gets rocked by the occasional scandal (Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair), but it is on college campuses that plagiarism and other violations of academic integrity run rampant (the recent Harvard cheating scandal, for example). And since these college students include the media employees of tomorrow, it is well worth noting their habits. Donald L. McCabe, professor at the Rutgers Business School and lead author on the new book "Cheating in College," has been studying academic integrity and dishonesty since 1990, and his most recent stats from summer 2012 quantify the incidence of plagiarism in higher ed.
From a study of nearly 150 schools, of more than 100,000 undergraduates surveyed, 34 percent admitted to having engaged in cut-and-paste plagiarism from online sources. Of just fewer than 17,000 graduate students also surveyed, 29 percent admitted to this type of plagiarism. These numbers might seem high, but in a study only a few years earlier, 62 percent of undergrads and 59 percent of grads admitted to plagiarizing. Lest anyone draw the conclusion from these numbers that plagiarism in college is on the decline, they might instead indicate something troubling. McCabe explains: "They don't think it's cheating anymore so they don't report it. It's becoming more accepted among students."
Susan D. Blum, Professor of Anthropology at University of Notre Dame and author of "My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture," has also researched the why, when and how of plagiarism among students. What Blum sees is that, "students are mostly focused on success and achievement, a bottom-line mentality." Asked to speculate on Lehrer's actions, Blum says she sees: "a very high-achieving, very visible young person who's maybe in over his head and desperate to keep making a splash, so he's turning to whatever possible techniques he can figure out."
Professors and college administrators need to root out plagiarism and determine the consequences for offenders. Blum recommends that colleges can treat plagiarism "…either as morally wrong or as a crime." What does she think the consequences should be for Lehrer? "There have been a lot of professional writers who have gotten away with a lot of verified misdeeds," she says. "Public apologies may be a good thing, saying: 'I messed up and here's how and I'm really going to be conscious of it again and don't do what I did." Blum also thinks that "losing desirable perches in the best publications, at least for a time, could also be something."
Lehrer's misdeeds included fabrication. Blum explains: "As a rule we expect writers will tell us things we have a basis for. The frame of journalism leads us to expect it's going to be truthful and factual." In addition to fabrication and recycling his own material, the many journalists now putting Lehrer's past works under a microscope have found evidence of frequent plagiarism, including rewriting the work of others and copying without attribution.
Blum cautions that we need to "sort out the various sorts of plagiarism. Just as we distinguish between tasting a grape at the supermarket and stealing a car, we don't want to lump together all infractions of academic-citation norms. There are big differences among imperfectly mastering citation norms, incorporating a sentence, omitting quotation marks, and turning in someone else's paper."
Many universities today attempt to suss out plagiarism by turning to a company some have nicknamed "the plagiarism police." Jason Chu, Senior Education Manager at Turnitin, calls what they do plagiarism prevention. When an academic paper is submitted to Turnitin, they compare it to three large databases, including 20 billion archived pages from the Internet, a database of 200 million student papers, and a database of largely sci-tech journals, books and periodicals.
A white paper prepared by Turnitin describes a "plagiarism spectrum," and breaks plagiarism down into 10 types, classified using student-friendly vernacular. The least severe is what they call a "re-tweet," meaning that the paper: "includes proper citation, but relies too closely on the text's original wording and/or structure." Moving up the ladder, we have the 404 ERROR ("A written piece that includes citations to non-existent or inaccurate information about sources"), the Mashup, the Recycle (Lehrer's frequently-used technique), and, at the top of the list of offenses, the Clone, which is "an act of submitting another's work, word-for-word, as one's own."
Once Turnitin completes what they call their "similarity checking," they give the professor an "originality report." If parts of the paper are found to have been taken from another source, Turnitin merely presents this evidence and leaves it to the professor to determine the consequences for the student.
Turnitin now owns another company called iThenticate, which provides a similar service to scholarly publishers and research departments. The plagiarism policing is beginning to move into the publishing arena. Jonathan Bailey, who works as a freelancer for iThenticate and runs the blog plagiarismtoday.com, sees the incidence of plagiarism as tied to what's happening in the journalism marketplace: "A lot of it is that it's a very tense market right now. Many publications have a sharp decrease in revenue and staff and sharp increase in demand for writing. They're scaling back but journalists are asked to do more." Bailey also comments that journalists "don't get training on the front end," something New York Times media reporter David Carr noted when writing about Lehrer in a recent "Media Equation" column. Carr also notes the "self-cleaning tendencies of the Web," which contribute to discovery of journalistic borrowing tendencies.
Bailey sees publishers moving slowly toward using the services of a company such as iThenticate, in part because of the expense. He hopes they'll come around though: "Jonah Lehrer isn't going to be the last wake-up call. Publishers need to do everything they can to keep their house clean." Bailey isn't the only one with these sentiments; New York Times reporter Julie Bosman says publishers are "notoriously ill-equipped to root out fraud."
Kelly McBride, Senior Faculty in Ethics, Reporting and Writing at The Poynter Institute, points to a phenomenon known as patchwriting, first noted by Rebecca Moore Howard, professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University. As McBride describes it, patchwriting is "a failed attempt at paraphrasing." She calls it a "form of intellectual dishonesty" and says that when she heard Professor Howard describe patchwriting, "I realized that journalists utilize patchwriting as well."
In her role at Poynter, McBride is the person many professionals turn to when they have a case of suspected plagiarism. "I probably see more examples of professional plagiarism than anybody," she says. McBride agrees with the Times' Bosman that publishers aren't good at detecting plagiarism, and she also thinks that a lack of good training is at fault in the incidence of plagiarism. "Now we live in this world where we publish a lot more material than we ever used to publish—so much volume—writers have to work so much faster. We're setting people up. Lehrer may have been a classic example of this."
Like David Carr, McBride speaks of a newsroom of the past where a writer "would have had to go into the office and work alongside other writers and had a cohort group, and work shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers who would then know his entire body of work rather than just a sliver. Newsrooms were such great environments for young writers. It was like kindergarten for novelists."
Now, she says, "I don't think we have a really good method for training writers to flex their muscles of originality." Susan Blum of Notre Dame also thinks that the long-valued concept of originality is under siege by our contemporary Internet-based, multi-authored, Wikipedia-consulting culture. She warns that "students are not wedded to the integrity of their own writing and do not necessarily assume that others are either." Is the same true of journalists? Can we afford to let it be?
Lehrer, all admit, knows how to make science accessible and to write about complex topics in a compelling way. Perhaps his artful storytelling served to draw his editors' and readers' attention away from issues they might otherwise have noticed sooner; former colleagues of Stephen Glass have said the same. We can't afford to let this era of high-volume journalism obscure the need for quality control, both on the part of writers and editors. Arrogance and ignorance both contribute to attribution errors, but we must all be attentive to such errors and remain the guardians of originality and truthfulness.