John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What comes after plagiarism

The Colorado Springs Gazette has dismissed a student intern, Hailey MacArthur, after determining that she plagiarized material from The New York Times in four articles published by the Gazette. The examples that Jeff Thomas, the editor, quoted in his public apology to readers are blatant and damning.

One has to wonder whether this intern was uncommonly bold or uncommonly stupid. To lift material from any source in the Internet age is risky; to do so from The New York Times virtually invites discovery.

But the questions don’t end there. Hailey MacArthur is a student in the University of Florida’s School of Journalism and Communications. Today, Mindy McAdams, who is on the faculty at Florida, retweeted this question: “Should j-school allow plagiarist to return to school?”

This is both a technical and philosophical question.

The school’s policy on plagiarism resembles the codes at many colleges and universities. It includes this warning: “Failure to uphold the standards of academic honesty will result in a failing grade for the course and, potentially, other serious disciplinary action up to and including expulsion.”

But unless Ms. MacArthur was receiving college credit from the internship, she was working outside the university. Does this policy — can this policy — be applied to a student’s actions off campus?

Apart from whatever disciplinary action the school may or may not see fit to carry out, it is not just Ms. MacArthur who has a problem. So does the School of Journalism and Communications. If it is reluctant to ruin a student’s career, if it does not want to say that youthful mistakes are final, if it finds a promise of contrition and reform persuasive and allows her to continue toward a degree, a shadow will linger over its programs.

Expulsion is the nuclear weapon at a university, and it is always a difficult matter to decide whether to use it. Happily, it’s not my case to adjudicate. Or yours. But you should feel free to express your sentiments on the matter.




*Plagiarism, of course, has been a perennial college problem. In 1978, when I was assigned as a teaching assistant to a professor in a large lecture section of the sophomore survey of British literature, a dubious paper turned up. We didn’t have time to run down sources, so we announced to the class that there would be a delay in returning that set of papers because we were investigating a potential case of plagiarism. By the next class session, five students had dropped the course.

The extent to which theft is commonplace at publications great and small is indicated by Craig Silverman’s annual plagiarism roundups at Regret the Error. Here’s the collection for 2008.

19 comments:

  1. I vote for expulsion. Someone so stupid or obtuse as to plagiarize from the paper of record should be summarily dismissed. Occasionally in life, we get a glimpse into a person's character. (OJ impugning his deceased wife's character after a jury found him not guilty of her murder is a good example. He has since been convicted of another crime and is in prison.) When presented this opportunity, take heed. Any investment in this plagiarist's journalism career would be a complete waste.

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  2. As a 1997 graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism, this case saddens me. UF would give you an F on a story if you made a fact error; imagine the consequences for plagiarism. I hesitate at the thought of ruining this student's life, but then remember UF's code of conduct, which all students are keenly aware of. John, I agree with you: I'm glad I don't have to decide this student's case.

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  3. Has anyone asked MacArthur why she did it? Is that answer available? Here's what I noticed: every NYTimes article sited is relatively old. Some old enough to have made the average college intern rather young when they were written.

    I am not defending plagarism, nor am I defending MacArthur. But, for me, there is insufficient information available for passing judgement on the young woman.

    Just out of curiosity...would most copy editors catch this problem quickly?

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  4. I have not seen anyone raise the Inevitable Question: Was this the first time?

    That is the question that must be asked whenever a plagiarism is exposed. Research into the reporter's other published work, which I assume is in progress, may be instructive.

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  5. As a UF journalism graduate now in the field, I vote for expulsion. An apology and acceptance back into the school in hopes that such a significant ethical misstep would not be taken again seems too idealistic. Expulsion, as a disciplinary action, due to its reality check and severe consequences, seems to me the only way the student will realize how wrong the move was -- and truly, consciously not do it again.

    After expulsion, she can still work to regain trust as a journalist. But start somewhere else.

    Returning to classes as normal will psychologically downplay the seriousness of the situation.

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  6. My biggest complaint is that in this passage, "A word used 20 years ago to evoke compassion for the poor..." Hailey McDummy failed to update her version to reflect the 10 years that have passed since the original article was published. Come on girl, if you're gonna do it, at least do it right..

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  7. I'd let her back into the program, but she goes to the back of the line. Sort of like having an asterisk next to her name. She'll either turn it into an A or decide journalism isn't for her. We had a different, but somewhat equally egregious situation at a student daily a decade ago and the offending student realize the error of her ways and changed her major (to one that made more money and, in hindsight, more sense). I think this young lady needs the chance to make good or do something else. I think that if I had been hung out to dry the first time I screwed up, I wouldn't be where I am today.

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  8. As a graduate from the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, I cannot support giving her a second chance. She is pursuing a degree in journalism in an age where the media's ethics are being challenged almost daily. If she were to be allowed to continue her education in the College, the value of my degree, and those of my colleagues', would be sadly depreciated. I worked hard during my years as a student journalist, and not once did I ever feel the need to cheat in order to get ahead. Yes, there were writers who were better than me, but instead of stealing their work, I committed myself to trying harder in order to improve my own writing. Part of the educational process is learning from your mistakes, but—perhaps more important than that—is learning to be accountable for your actions. Even if she wasn't receiving credit for the internship (which, I'm pretty sure she was), the College should expel her. Did Stephen Glass get a second chance? I think not. If they allow her to stay, they will only be setting a standard that says it's OK to plagiarize, which it most certainly is not.

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  9. I was overwhelmed and ill at one point toward the end of my college career. I had a music course final paper due that I had no chance of getting done, so I asked a friend who wrote jacket copy for a record company for help. She plagiarized the whole thing from a well-known (though not to me) source. My professor was kind and sympathetic. He came to see me in the hospital and brought along the book the paper had been cribbed from, which he said he hadn't even had to get up from his desk to reach. He could have turned me in and had me expelled or at the very least he could have flunked me. He did neither; he gave me another chance to do a paper that represented my own thinking. I did. I was not only relieved and grateful, I actually learned quite a bit in the process of writing the paper. If I'd been expelled, I'd have learned that you need to do your own work (which I already knew), but i'd have had that lesson reinforced at a terrible cost. The way he handled it, I learned a lot more of genuine value.

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  10. Cherie B, the copy desk did not catch this. It's embarrassing that we didn't. We just assumed it was a young reporter's bad, overwritten prose.

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  11. Is this a REAL question? Maybe she shouldn't be expelled from the school, but it clear that she must be released from the journalism program. I just graduated and I am certain my department would ban someone immediately. As a student, you carry the weight of your journalism school, your school newspaper and your own integrity. This girl ruined it all.

    And, for everyone who thinks a second chance is in order so that she can "learn from her mistakes," you're wrong. This girl purposefully took graphs from old stories. One dates back to 1987. It's not as Google-able. Duh! She knew it was wrong. Completely unforgivable.

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  12. Moreover... she was an unpaid intern, receiving college credit. Someone tell me she hasn't violated school policy now.

    www.alligator.org/articles/2009/.../090708_plagiarism.txt

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  13. An article about University of Florida faculty responses to the plagiarism allegations:

    http://alligator.org/articles/2009/07/08/news/campus/090708_plagiarism.txt

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  14. Maybe we should make her Vice President of the United States!

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  15. People don't realize how truly stupid she is. One of the articles she plagiarized from the New York Times included this sentence about the word "homelessness": "A word used 20 years ago to evoke compassion for the poor is increasingly accepted as shorthand for a grab bag of undesirables, the deranged, disheveled or destitute." When she wrote her piece--10 years after the NYT article was published--she didn't even think to change "20 years ago" to "30 years ago".

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  16. So why don't all you perfect people who have never made stupid mistakes just kill her?

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  17. One plagiarism might be plausibly passed off as a mistake. Four instances begin to suggest habitual dishonesty.

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  18. One could look at the consequences of the offense and the context. The purpose of education is to learn, if the educator has not highlighted plagiarism in the class teachings, it is their responsibility to make the students aware of the seriousness and possible consequential actions in the education system. We are all imperfect, everyone needs a little guidance and reminder of morals especially when dealing with intellectual property, the perspective some respected persons in our midst view such material as a lively hood, and also association in order to place recognition subsequently to receive praise and royalties. Whom of us has never watched a DVD that someone else let us borrow? Again, we are not perfect and require forgiveness, especially on a first offense. Please excuse my grammar, I hope no-one has ever said this all before. TS.

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  19. Seems to be that what comes after plagiarism for Hailey Macarthur is becoming an escort/bottle girl in South Florida.

    Internships are meant to weed out the unworthy.

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