News next: a journalism teacher's diary

March 6, 2010

Stop, thief, continued

Gerald Posner's Facebook photo

When award-winning writer Gerald Posner admitted that he had plagiarized a substantial part of his story about a sensational murder case from the Miami Herald, he blamed the World Wide Web.

The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

That’s like a carpenter blaming his hammer when he hits his thumb.

Here’s how Posner describes his working methods, the methods he says made him an “accidental plagiarist.”

For the Beast articles, I created master electronic files, which contained all the information I developed about a topic – that included interviews, scanned documents, published articles, and public information. I often had master files that were 15,000 words, that needed to be cut into a story of 1,000 to 1500 words.

In the compressed deadlines of the Beast, it now seems certain that those master file were a recipe for disaster for me. It allowed already published sources to get through to a number of my final and in the quick turnaround I then obviously lost sight of the fact that it belonged to a published source instead of being something I wrote.

More than one student I’ve caught plagiarizing has told me he panicked and reached for his mouse as deadline approached. Still more frequently, students have claimed that they had inadvertently purloined from the Web because they “lost sight of the fact” that those passages in their notes had come from the Web.

Others responding to the Posner scandal have noted that blogging platforms make quotation and attribution easy: block quotes and hyperlinks are the norm.

But if they’re right about the technological solution, Posner is right about the technological problem: Cutting and pasting make it so easy to create a portfolio of notes in someone else’s words.

The recent epidemic of high profile cases has called forth lots of advice on recognizing plagiarism and avoiding it.

Here’s mine:

  • When you paste something into your notes, you must simultaneously add the attribution. Not when you’re finishing your research for the day; not when you’re writing your piece; but the moment you move something from the Web to your document.
  • Add quotation marks.
  • When you come to write your piece, if you’re in doubt, attribute. It’s easy to take attribution out, if your editor doesn’t think it’s necessary; hard to put it in, once you’ve lost or forgotten the source.

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