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Received Any Plagiarized Submissions?

Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 12:50 AM

The Internet puts loads of information at our fingertips. Lamentably, that's been a boon to plagiarists.

By William Dunkerley

Google the term "Internet plagiarism" and you'll find that there's a lot of chatter on the subject. Most of it seems to revolve around student plagiarism.

The Internet clearly makes plagiarism convenient and tempting.

As editors, though, we are vulnerable to submissions from authors who have succumbed to the same temptations.

A Case Example

A recent Washington Post story ran up a warning flag for me. Here's the passage that caught my eye:

(Washington Post, David Filipov, March 23, 2017)

"Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who died three weeks after drinking a cup of tea laced with deadly polonium-210 at a London hotel. A British inquiry found that Litvinenko was poisoned by Russian agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, who were acting on orders that had 'probably been approved by President Putin.'"

That's nothing that would catch most people's attention, especially amidst today's raging controversy over Russia vis-a-vis our presidential election.

The Litvinenko case, however, is one with which I've been very familiar. Shortly after Litvinenko's 2006 death the International Federation of Journalists commissioned me to analyze the media coverage of the tragedy. What I found and documented is that virtually everything we saw about Litvinenko in the news had been fabricated by an arch-enemy of Putin. So I recognized that the Post's story lacked a factual basis.

But then I heard from someone who revealed something else that surprised me. Not only was the Post's article inaccurate, it might have been plagiarized word-for-word from a story that ran in an Australian publication a month and a half earlier.

Here's what Marnie O'Neill wrote for news.com.au on February 13:

"Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who died three weeks after drinking a cup of tea at a London hotel that had been laced with deadly polonium-210. A British inquiry found that Mr Litvinenko was poisoned by Russian agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, who were acting on orders that had 'probably been approved by President Putin.'"

Except for a minor copyediting change, the Post's article looks like a complete rip-off.

What About You?

Have you ever been victimized by plagiarism at your publication? We asked a few editors for anecdotes.

Many report having been spared. Kate Penn, for example, told us, "We have not experienced this (as far as I know)." She is editor-in-chief of Floral Management.

Dan Reynolds, however, editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance, reported:

"We once picked up some plagiarism in a piece, caught it before it ran. There was some tension between the editors on the topic of whether to axe the freelancer immediately or give them a second chance. That freelancer no longer works for us."

Finding Out Too Late

At Massage Magazine, editor-in-chief Karen Menehan had a more complex story to tell:

"About three years ago, an author with a PhD turned in an article that had been plagiarized from various websites, with chunks of stolen text cobbled together.

"We discovered this after publication. The author said she had no idea she shouldn't use other people's work.

"This situation resulted in our rewriting our submission guidelines to more clearly stipulate that none of an article's text may have been published elsewhere, either in print or online.

"We also bought a subscription to an online plagiarism-checking tool, which is now a key element of our editing process. This tool helped me discover a month ago that another writer -- who makes his living as a freelance journalist -- had lifted quotes from someone else's article, and presented them as quotes he had gathered.

"He did take the extra step of rewriting those direct quotes slightly 'to make them sound better.' He did not receive a second assignment."

Heather Granato, VP of content at Health & Nutrition, told us:

"It's been many years since we've had a plagiarism issue. However, I had the situation with a staff writer who submitted an article for a print magazine.

"When the article came out in our magazine, we were contacted by an online blogger who shared her blog and asked that we compare it to the article. In fact, our writer had pulled multiple paragraphs verbatim, despite saying she had done original research. When confronted, she had no excuse beyond just being busy and she didn't think anyone would notice.

"We had to issue a formal apology to the writer, put a print error notice in the next print magazine, and we terminated the writer from our team.

"We have since that point done spot checking of phrasing that seems out of the usual TOV for our contributors and writers, and generally try to work with known personnel. It is difficult with new employees, but in those cases we request notes and fact-check for multiple months after initial employment."

Decisiveness

These editors treated their plagiarists with the firmness demanded by editorial integrity. What's more, Menehan used her experience to clarify things in her editorial submission guidelines and began using an online plagiarism-checking tool.

With all the freewheeling copying of material from the Internet, these are things every editor should seriously consider.

And the Post?

We invited the Washington Post to comment on the duplicative text it published. This response came from Mary Beth Sheridan, deputy foreign editor:

"Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Those two sentences initially appeared in Business Insider [www.businessinsider.com] in March 2016, and wound up in the Washington Post blogpost as the result of a failure by our Moscow correspondent to clearly label in his notes what was original reporting and what was clipped for reference from other sources. As a result, when he wrote the post he inadvertently reproduced the sentences from another source without attribution. David Filipov is a veteran reporter who has had an impeccable career, but he acknowledges -- as do we -- that this was a serious error. We are correcting the blogpost and attaching an editor's note."

So the explanation is that the plagiarism was a result of inattention rather than mal-intent. From the standpoint of serving the reader, however, I believe this is a distinction without a difference. I'm glad that the Post published a correction, however.

And news.co.au?

The Australian pickup predates the Post's story, but it postdates the Business Insider coverage. So it looks as though news.co.au plagiarized from Business Insider, too. It seems like all three stories are from the same playbook.

I wonder where Business Insider got its information from. Not only did it misrepresent the Litvinenko matter, but there was something else. It named others who had been "critics" of Vladimir Putin and who subsequently died suspiciously. The list included the name Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes magazine's Russian edition.

Paul was a subscriber to Editors Only, and I know that, ironically, instead of being a critic of Putin, he wrote positively of the work of Russia's then relatively new president.

The Post was astute enough not to replicate Business Insider's distortion of this. News.co.au didn't exercise the same judgment, however. O'Neill wrote her own version of the Klebnikov allegation, without using Business Insider's text directly. But the factualness remains lacking.

I guess it's not surprising that sometime-plagiarists don't place a premium on fact checking.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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