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Plagiarism fiasco recap

I came upon the plagiarized article while doing a Google search.

I needed to pull up the link for the photo essay I’d done for DISCOVER about scientific research at Guantanamo Bay. The article on Indiana Public Media’s blog was the first result on Google. Curious, I clicked through.

The author, whose name isn’t of importance now, is a telecommunications major and an associate producer for IPM’s website. Perhaps if she’d been an anonymous blogger with a no-count page rank, I wouldn’t have made an effort to track her down.

But she wasn’t an anonymous blogger. She had profiles on LinkedIn and other social media sites, and was angling for a career in journalism. I wanted to know why she had swiped my article and put her own name on it, and I wanted the article removed from IPM’s website.

I was righteously pissed off, but I also wanted to be fair. Rather than contacting her university to report her (which would probably be a violation of the school’s honor code and could do serious damage to her academic career), I emailed her first, expressing my feelings and asking for an explanation. On December 22, I sent her an email:

Dear [Name Redacted]:

My name is Julie Schwietert Collazo and I’m writing because I just discovered that you plagiarized an article of mine that was published by DISCOVER Magazine in August. Your “article” on Indiana Public Media’s site, published in September, lifted significant parts of my text and used my wording verbatim. As a communications and psychology major, as well as an associate producer for IPM, you should certainly know better.

I’ve already informed IPM about this and am of the mind to report this to your university, as I’m sure it’s an infraction of the academic honesty code, but am curious to see what your response is. Why would you take the hard work of another writer and try to appropriate it as your own? The article I wrote for DISCOVER literally took years to finish- from a visit to Guantanamo Bay in 2008 to interviews and consultations with researchers earlier this year. Even if you had credited me or the original source, which you didn’t do, using my words verbatim is plagiarism, and it’s totally unacceptable and completely unprofessional.

I await your response.

The following week, having given what I felt was ample time for a reply–and not having received one–I called IPM. The people I spoke with and then corresponded with via e-mail were concerned and professional. They assured me they would follow up once the winter break was over.

By the end of January, though, I hadn’t heard anything from IPM, so I sent an email on January 27 to ask for an update. The student had made an honest mistake, I was told; she “didn’t understand the nuance of attribution.” The station manager hoped that I would accept the writer’s apologies–which, it stands to mention, the writer herself never sent. In the continuous battle to decide what’s worth my time and energy, I decided the matter was resolved. The article had been removed from the website and (hopefully) the woman now knew what plagiarism was… in all of its nuanced forms.

**

In this, the age of pre-fabbed, repackaged, and reparceled “news,” plagiarism of all sorts isn’t all that uncommon. The reason isn’t just willful content scraping, though there’s plenty of that. Some people simply don’t know what constitutes plagiarism, and popular forms of writing online only increase the potential for both flagrant intentional and subtle unintentional plagiarism (for an extreme–and frankly, frightening– scenario of how this is shaking out online, check out this article from Wired).

If you’re now questioning what plagiarism is and isn’t, here are some resources you might find useful:

What is plagiarism?, from Plagiarism.org

Avoiding Plagiarism from OWL, the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University (though the emphasis is on academic writing, the information and suggestions in this primer have broad applicability)

 

Do you have any experience with plagiarism or want to share any resources? Feel free to do so in the comments.

 

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10 responses »

  1. The slippery answer from the station (she didn’t understand the nuance of attribution? please. she cut and pasted.) makes this resolution feel somewhat unsatisfactory to me – does the writer really understand what she did wrong, if the station is being so gentle about it? But still, Julie, I admire your ability to say case closed on this one and walk away.

    Reply
    • Exactly. Please! As if people don’t know. They just don’t care. If you drive drunk because you “don’t know” that there’s a law against it, you’re still driving drunk. Well, like Eva said, kudos to you for getting it taken down and following up. I bet she never wrote you back because it would be an admission of guilt.

      Reply
  2. Wow – you’re a bigger person than I. It’s frustrating, but unfortunately not surprising, that she didn’t even both with a personal apology letter.

    Reply
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  4. As an editor, I once caught a writer trying to get away with plagiarizing Wikipedia. (Perhaps it goes without saying that she was a horrible writer; still, my boss wouldn’t fire her so I was stuck dealing with her until this happened.) I figured it out pretty quickly because she was such an awful writer and her text sounded strangely canned. When my boss approached her about it, her excuse was that she had tried NOT to plagiarize. I’m still not entirely sure what that means — that she didn’t mean to copy and paste? — but then she threw a fit over being edited anyway so we didn’t even have to fire her for such an obvious, stupid ploy. She was at least twice my age, which is to say, it doesn’t just happen to young naive college students. Still, I thought we all leaned these basic lessons a long time ago…

    Reply
  5. Yikes. I agree that the response (or lack thereof) you received is the scariest part.

    Reply
  6. she “didn’t understand the nuance of attribution.” BS.

    Reply
  7. Crazy! I’m with Neha on their bullshit answer as well. College students who regularly write papers “understand the nuance of attribution.”

    Reply
  8. Anyone who has made it to a college level education knows full well what constitutes plagiarism, and I totally agree that the BS excuse of “not understanding the nuance of attribution” is a very poor response indeed. There is no nuance, you simple must credit the original author, even if your article is based upon their work, and not just a verbatim copy. Totally and completely unprofessional of both her and the station. Your restraint in not turning her into here school’s ethics board is impressive – I’m not sure I could have resisted that temptation, but I truly hope this incident has made an impact on her and her future choices.

    Plagiarism is a very frustrating beast to deal with….it can become an all-consuming obsession, and leave one drained on many levels, not the least of which is the amount of time it can rob you of. And yet…..we do still have to fight it, even if we pick our battles. What I hate most is that feeling of being violated – it’s almost the same as when you’re robbed by a mugger – and it leaves you just a little bit scarred each time it happens. Our biggest challenge is to not let it also rob us of our passion for writing, and our thrill at getting published.

    Reply
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