Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The liar, the cheat, and the thief

I have been asked to make available a previous post on detecting plagiarism and fabrication that is no longer available at

Those of us in the business regularly consult the Regret the Error Web site, which aggregates published corrections, to see what blunders our peers are fessing up to.

Craig Silverman, the proprietor of the site, does an annual year-in-corrections roundup. And, since 2004, he has also provided an annual roundup of reports of plagiarism and fabrication. These are, mind you, reported instances. As teachers and professors will likely concede, what gets caught appears to be a fraction of what is committed.

The range is impressive. Incidents occur at student papers, metropolitan dailies and national magazines. Columnists are well represented — perhaps they imagine that the rules don’t apply to them. People lift material from Wikipedia, from other periodicals, from Web sites, shoving it all under their own bylines.

No one is immune. In recent years, scandals of plagiarism and fabrication have blighted The New York Times, USA Today and The New Republic. Accusations of what was either plagiarism or extremely sloppy research practices have cast shadows on the work of historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Careers at The Baltimore Sun have been destroyed by evidence of plagiarism and fabrication.

It falls to editors — assigning editors and copy editors — to protect the integrity of the publication. Indeed, the instances of premeditated or accidental plagiarism that have been identified in-house at The Sun have been caught on the copy desk. This, by the way, is one good reason that the copy desk should have the staff and the time to edit, rather than merely process, the copy.

For those of you who teach or edit or have some supervisory responsibility over written material, I offer some commonplace tips on what to watch for.

Changes in diction: If the vocabulary of an otherwise amateurish student writer or cliche-ridden hack journalist should abruptly grow sophisticated, lifting is likelier than an infusion from the muse.

Changes in syntax: Same thing. If a writer who struggles to cobble together a noun and a verb suddenly masters the compound-complex sentence, with attendant Ciceronian participial ornaments, it’s time to start looking for the source.

Specialized information: Ask Howard Baker’s question from the Watergate hearings of beloved memory: What did he know, and when did he know it? Sudden access to biographical details, historical information, ecclesiastical terminology or scientific or medical expertise has to have come from somewhere. Insist on an explanation of the source.

Dubious sources: Any article based on a single source is automatically suspect — how can you tell that the source wasn’t lying? Where’s the confirmation? Similarly, anything based on second- or third-hand sources demands scrutiny. In addition, readers are justifiably suspicious of anonymous sources. Even when anonymity has been granted for good reason, such as the source’s reasonable fear of physical or economic injury, the writer should be obliged to reveal the source to the assigning editor, acquire independent supporting information, and give the reader as much information as is prudent about the anonymous source’s credibility.

Improbabilities: When Jack Kelley filed his famous story with USA Today about seeing, in the aftermath of a bombing, human heads rolling down the street, their eyelids still blinking, it would have been a good thing for the paper if an editor had said, “What the hell?” and followed up. In journalism, as in investment offers, if it looks too good to be true ...

Your job as an editor is to be skeptical, not gullible. Any writer’s work ought to stand up to questioning, particularly about sourcing. So ask the questions.

As it happens, the very ease of theft that the Internet provides also offers ease of detection. Use Lexis-Nexis or Google to find information on the subject that the suspect article covers. Do searches on distinctive and anomalous phrases. (Some colleges and universities employ specialized software and run term papers through it.) Check it out.

Follow up. The first question that must always be asked when a plagiarism is detected is this: Has he/she done this before? This has to be checked out, but it won’t be unless you, who have detected the misdeed, report it to someone in authority.

Don’t agonize over fear of appearing to be an informer. If the instance you identify is a first-time mistake made out of ignorance, you may save a colleague’s career. If it turns out to be one in a pattern of lies, then the career wasn’t worth saving.

How I get myself in trouble

I was simply taking a break from an editing project to check Facebook when I saw a post from one of my Facebook friends/acquaintances about an opinion by Maryland’s attorney general that it may be legal for Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. “What do you think of this?” the friend asked.

So I wrote: “It's plainly a civil rights issue, and lining up with the precedent of the states that refused to recognize interracial marriages would not be something to look back on with pride.”

A little later someone else posted this response: “Marriage is Biblically defined as between one man and one woman. Gay marriage should not be compared to interracial marriage for many reasons. Homosexuality is a crime and should be punishable. It is not a civil right. One clearly cannot control his ethnicity unless one chooses to surgically alter his skin like the late pervert Michael Jackon. Homosexuality is learned behavior and it is not genetic.”

So I said further, along these lines:

The kind of marriage under discussion is civil marriage — secular, not religious. No church is compelled to recognize gay unions, though some do. Marriage has always been about more than the sexual activity of the participants. It is, for one, about property (read Jane Austen), and it is about the state’s concern with property and insurance and the protection of minor children and other matters.

The point at issue is whether one state should honor what is legal in other states, which is why the Constitution has a “full faith and credit clause,” so that we don’t wind up a bunch of minor duchies and princedoms with conflicting laws, like Germany before unification.

The other issues the commenter raises ignore what you might call facts. Homosexuality is not illegal. It is not, psychiatry has formally determined, a mental illness. Specific behavior, yes, is learned, but there is an increasing body of scientific research that indicates that homosexuality is an inborn trait.

Moreover, it should be obvious to everyone by now that arguing from Leviticus makes more problems than it solves. Both the Old Testament and the New condone slavery — as Maryland once did. The Old Testament permits divorce, but the New Testament forbids it; how should our lawmakers be guided? Should the General Assembly ban the harvesting of crabs because the dietary code of the Old Testament forbids shellfish?

I mentioned the interracial marriage issue because at one time, in living memory, states that denied black people full civil rights were allowed to refuse to recognize marriages between black and white people performed in other states. It was not something of which to be proud today, and to allow an analogous prejudice to copy that pattern will not be something to boast about to our descendants.

Happy days will be here again

In the second act of Annie, after hearing Little Orphan Annie sing “Tomorrow” to his Cabinet, Franklin Roosevelt says that he has decided that “if my administration’s going to be anything, it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country.”

That is the characteristic American tone. We don’t want to levy confiscatory taxes on the super-rich, because we know that we ourselves are on the brink of winning PowerBall or Mega Millions. Or we’re going to star in a hugely successful reality show or win on American Idol or play for the NBA.

Optimism is the winning tactic in American politics. FDR understood this, mainly. When he tried to punish his enemies, as in the court-packing effort, it backfired. When he conveyed buoyancy and optimism, he prevailed. The most successful Republican presidents of the past half-century, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, radiated genial optimism.

While it would be presumptuous of me to offer advice to Ms. Palin or Senator McConnell or the other worthies opposed to the incumbent administration, I would point out that anger and resentment go only so far in America. Lord knows there are ample reasons for the public to be angry. (Hey, I’ve been out of a job for the past ten months. You think I leap out of bed every morning with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart?) But harnessing that anger is not necessarily a winning proposition.

In recent years, Ross Perot tapped into populist sentiment, but got only so far. (OK, people, on where I put only this time? Sheesh.) Perhaps more resonantly, George Wallace campaigned on the politics of resentment against bureaucrats and plutocrats and people with expensive private educations. He rode a swell of anger, but it ebbed. And, of course, the godfather of the politics of resentment, Richard Nixon, may not be the best example to emulate.

Channeling Pollyanna won’t work — as Hubert Humphrey’s sad “politics of joy” campaign in 1968 showed — but if you want to reach the top in American politics, the best bet is to foster encouragement and hopefulness among the citizenry.

For an example of that native optimism, you can mark your calendars for the Memorial Players’ production of Annie at Memorial Episcopal Church, Bolton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood. Performances will be offered on Friday evenings, April 23 and April 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday evenings, April 24 and May 1, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday matinees, April 25 and May 2, at 3:00 p.m. (Lost among the more impressive members of the cast, you will find me in the role of FDR.)

There are no tickets. Admission is free, but you will almost surely be moved to make a generous contribution toward the costs of the production.