Monday, August 13, 2012

Plagiarism Is a Firing Offense

There seems to be some extremely slow feet dragging at CNN and Time. Fareed Zakaria seems to have been suspended for a month for plagiarism. Now, the interesting thing with this is this is right on the heels of Jonah Lehrer resigning in disgrace for fabricating some quotes (which I learned about at Ann Althouse's blog.) The New Yorker, apparently, holds its writers to a higher ethical standard than Time and CNN.

I don't want to rain on the parade of the folks who helped break the story, so go ahead over there to read and compare the original paragraph (the Lepore version) with the Zakaria version. Note, and this is important, if anyone tries to tell you this is not plagiarism. The problem isn't that he used roughly the same ideas from Winkler's initial piece. So, in one sense, what Epstein says is true: "By no stretch of the imagination did Zakaria pass Winkler’s idea off as his own."

No one is accusing him of plagiarizing Winkler. Rather, the problem is Zakaria lifting, with only a few editorial asides (Asides!), whole cloth from Lepore. Winkler is not the one who had his ideas stolen; Lepore is. What is plagiarism? Oddly enough, The Daily Beast linked above tells you exactly what plagiarism is, by telling you what Zakaria did, while insisting that it is not plagiarism.
"He embarrassed his employer, Time, by not sufficiently juggling the words around or employing the thesaurus to camouflage the sorry fact that instead of going to the ultimate source, the book Gunfight, he (or his assistants) used the electronic clip file. By not changing enough words, he provided the “gotcha” bait for the feeding frenzy of bloggers out for his blood. And for this embarrassment, he had to give an abject apology."
That, is a beautiful and succinct definition of plagiarism. Juggling the words around? Using a thesaurus to change a few key words here and there? Not changing enough words? Look, in academics, or journalism, you cite your source — get this — even for a paraphrase. It is one of the reasons that lots of history books are peppered with footnotes. If you did not need to cite for paraphrases, only direct quotes would be footnoted.

Since I am going to go ahead and put the boot in, here's how Yale defines plagiarism. Let me highlight the most salient point (all direct quotes for those too lazy to go to Yale's site): "Plagiarism takes many forms, but it falls into three main categories: using a source’s language without quoting, using information from a source without attribution, and paraphrasing a source in a form that stays too close to the original."

It suggests you go here to learn more. Go ahead and do the little reading assignment on the three paraphrases. Then get back to me. Back? Good. Let's quote why paraphrase one is still plagiarism: "The writer of this Paraphrase 1 has plagiarized from the original because she has simply replaced the words of the original with synonymous words and phrases, instead of rewriting the key ideas in her own words." Gee, that sounds like exactly what Epstein said Zakaria did.

What about Paraphrase 2? Yale says it is still plagiarism!? Why? Here's why, per Yale: "But as shown below, the writer of Paraphrase 2 has taken phrases verbatim from the original, rearranged them somewhat, and woven them into the fabric of her own writing—without attributing them to the source." That's... also fairly similar to what Epstein said Zakaria did!

Why, do you ask, did I pick Yale to use as my definition and examples of plagiarism? Here's why.

Now, most Web sources do not use footnotes (or as rigorous a system as Chicago), but even MLA expects you to cite the source your quote came from, not the initial source quoted. In fact, taking a quote from another source, yet citing the original source, is even worse, in some ways. What if the author (your secondary source!) misquoted the primary source? Instead of being able to break new ground, you instead get suckered by their academic laziness! Not only that, you are literally stealing the time that author spent doing research and not crediting them with the research hours they put in.

From what I can tell, Lepore's original research is accurate. But, what if it hadn't been? Zakaria would have been tricked into reprinting it! All he would have had to do is either cite to Lepore ("As Jill Lepore in this issue of The New Yorker quoted,") or, get this, he could have done his own work. That's why it is so important to walk back to your primary source whenever possible.

Zakaria did three things wrong. One, is the plagiarism (that's the paraphrase without citation and direct ripping of style, phrasing and construction.) Two is not doing his own research (or, if he did, it is not apparent.) Third is not immediately resigning in utter disgrace. He's supposedly an academic. Yale knows better; he should too.


  1. Huh. Looks like Salon and I are on roughly the same page. That's a statement I never thought I'd say.

  2. More reports coming in of Zakaria's "borrowing" of people's work without attribution (,0,6955643.story).


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