Stealing From Others

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Plagiarism is the most dastardly form of flattery

I was totally astonished with yesterday’s news that an editor with an Alberta newspaper had plagiarized columns by Russell Wangersky and many others.

I mean, Russell’s writing is superlative, but there’s really no need to be stealing it.

According to the Calgary Herald, Steve Jeffrey, publisher/editor of the Anchor Weekly has resigned, after it was revealed that he had copied entire tracts of text from Wangersky, Ed Smith, Bill Westcott, plus 11 other writers from across North America.

When contacted by The Telegram, Jeffrey went into denial, claiming he hadn’t copied anything but has used other writers for ‘inspiration.”

“I’m kind of taken aback by what’s going on right now, and really don’t know what to say,” he told Daniel MacEachern.

But he didn’t brazen it out for long. On Tuesday, the Calgary Herald reported that Jeffrey had resigned.

It’s hard enough to accept that an editor and publisher would plagiarize other people’s work. But to post that stolen writing online, where detection can be so easy, is both brazen and stupid. 

Jeffrey was caught by George Waters, a writer in California who performed Internet searches using unique phrases from his own columns.

You can read The Telegram’s coverage of that story here:

http://www.thetelegram.com/News/Local/2012-03-27/article-2940155/Alberta-editor-accused-of-plagiarizing/1

This incident stirred memories of my own encounter with plagiarism. It was the 1980s, and I was editor of The Newfoundland Herald. A member of the editorial team submitted a tribute to her father that was quite well-written. It ran in the lifestyle section of the magazine.

Months later, another member of the staff quietly took me aside.

“I was at a house party on the weekend, and someone mentioned that column by so-and-so (who shall remain anonymous),” said the employee. “They said they saw the same column somewhere else, in a ladies magazine.”

I was incredulous. But the staffer’s source was credible, and insisted that it was copied, word for word.

I didn’t quite believe it. However, the writer in question was paid a small stipend each week, over and above her regular duties, to supply the lifestyle column, so there was a financial motive. I visited a used bookstore in the downtown, one that sold used magazines. They had plenty of back issues of the publication in question, so I took a pile of them and sat in the corner.

After about 20 minutes of page-thumbing, I found it. I had anticipated that my staffer had borrowed the gist of the column and rewritten it, or perhaps copied some select chunks of text. But no, this was word for word. The entire column had been retyped, verbatim, with not a single change in text. The person had been caught red-handed.

The next morning, I called the employee in for a private meeting. On the table was her column, laid next to the magazine, page open to the original article. She took it all in, then said, “What now?”

“As of now, you’re fired. You’d better get your things and go.”

For me, that was the end of it. But I realized, years later, that I should have done more. I should have published a note in the magazine, letting readers know what had happened. And I should have written a letter of apology to the women’s magazine, for the stolen article.

This was in the days before Internet, when we didn’t have the ability to Google 10,000 documents on a subject, and copy and paste text with the click of a mouse. Nowadays, plagiarism is even more rampant. It’s a major problem for writers, who find their material being copied without permission or payment.

“I once used the exact same method described (by George Waters) and caught a website that had taken one of my columns verbatim and republished it, with a small line at the top that said ‘originally appeared in The Western Star’,” said Dara Squires, a columnist in Corner Brook, in a comment left on Facebook. “There was no name, no link, let alone pay. Over half the content on their site was taken from news sources, including CBC and The Globe and Mail, republished with their name as author.

“The kicker? The site was a PR-Media Relations site for parenting related businesses and the owners were two former journalists (that had worked for major media outlets and had journalism degrees). They even tried to defend their actions, saying they had asked someone at CBC about it and were told it's fine to do so. Funny, because the CBCs legal team did not agree. Nor any of the other news outlets I contacted.”

I know other writers who had their material stolen and republished, sometimes without a byline, and I invite them to relate their experiences below. But the problem is not limited to thieving “journalists” – plagiarism is rampant in our education system, with students copying tracts of text without references and even stealing entire papers, often with impunity.

Another reader, Krista Chatman Li, teaches a Canadian history course at the University of Alberta. She sees blatant cheating – sometimes from her own work – almost every time an essay is due.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s a case of not properly foot noting material,” Li said, also on Facebook. “But every once in a while, you catch a little weasel who has ripped off an essay from the Internet. When this happens, there is a whole ream of procedure and protocol that has to happen. But, the system often treats the professor as the guilty party. If I catch a student, I have to have hard proof. I then have to convince my department that I found a cheater. Once they agree, I have to convince the faculty... There are any number of meetings, phone calls, many forms before a student ever sees a figure of authority. Nearly every time, the prof is asked to get the student to admit his or her guilt, apologize, and move on.”

Students are often backed up by their parents, Li said, who have been known to bring lawyers into the picture.

“My colleague, who genuinely caught a cheater, ended up having to cut his vacation short and fly back to campus at his own expense because the student got a lawyer and threatened to sue not only him but the department. Needless to say, the department backed down, the prof was left hanging, and the complaint was withdrawn. I am a contract instructor… I receive no resources such as a teaching assistant. If I decide to pursue a cheater, I can expect 20 - 30 hours of time to be spent dealing with this little shit. I won't get paid for it. I certainly cannot afford to hire my own lawyer and I don't have a union worth mentioning. I would rather face the devil than launch into a case of plagiarism. Until we stop raising entitled children who think that the world is their oyster, and theirs alone, we will see this in increasing numbers. Integrity starts in the home!”

It’s equally difficult for small-market media and bloggers to deal with plagiarism, when it comes to their attention. Quite often, there is no contact information for the site owner, they reside in another legal jurisdiction, and will often be rude and uncooperative if you do reach them. And who can afford a legal challenge, in such situations?

Victims of plagiarism might best adopt the approach of Monica Gaudio, a student who learned that her work had been reproduced without permission in Cook’s Source magazine. When her attempt to resolve the matter was rebuffed by the editor, the case quickly went viral and Cook’s Source became the target of online insult and ridicule.

You can read about that case here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/nov/04/cooks-source-copyright-complaint

If you’d like to know more about plagiarism, this site is a great resource:

http://www.plagiarism.org/

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  • Laura B.
    March 28, 2012 - 17:41

    Geoff - you asked for other examples of stolen work. Here's mine: As a student, I did a bit of freelance writing for the photography website, www.hickerphoto.com. One of the articles I wrote about icebergs (just found the link here - nothing ever dies on the Internet!: http://www.travel.hickerphoto.com/iceberg_watching_newfoundland_labrador.jsp) ended up on another site. I found it by googling my own name one day. I wish I had kept a screenshot, but this was seven years ago or better. While they had kept the majority of the text in tact, they re-wrote the lead to say all icebergs are caused by global warming, and we shouldn't admire them because the are harbingers of impending global death! At that time, all it took was an e-mail to the webmaster with a link to the original, and the article was soon pulled.