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Six Degrees of Plagiarism and the Crisis of Originality

This article originally appeared on on August 7, 2014.

By Michele Weldon

Liar, liar, your passage is on fire.

The push for Sen. John Walsh (D-Montana) to step down and out of the way over his college plagiarism incident echoes through the news while Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley is newly accused of non-attributing some passages from another biographer’s work.

In two separate Massachusetts cases recently, school officials are under fire for heavy lifting from other people’s speeches. Some Buzz Feed and New York Times staffers are still cringing from the discovery in the last few weeks of peers using the unethical way out to reach a word count. A new president of BuzzFeed Inc. announced this week– Greg Coleman– may have to ponder how best to post the code on plagiarism. The bulletin board? The website? The bathrooms?

It all leads us to wonder about the seeming ubiquity of the crime that infects politics, media, academia and education. Perhaps it is a crisis of originality, perhaps the rush to be first, funniest, most meme-able, most likely to go viral has proven to be so intoxicatingly seductive that many cannot resist. If done is better than perfect, than done now without regard to ethics is the perfect solution.

“But it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation,” Herman Melville wrote. Alas.

Certainly, as Wikipedia explains in its ripe for the taking entries, plagiarism is ancient and modern. The Freedom Forum carefully notes the media incidents of plagiarism until the last update in 2007. Perhaps the task was too exhausting to continue to the present.

If you got away with making up or stealing stuff it in earlier decades, consider it a fluke. If you cop a sentence from anyone else’s stuff today, you will be exposed, no exception. And stay tuned: You just might got caught today for what you lifted 50 years ago.

I know that in 17 years of teaching journalism at the undergraduate and graduate levels at The Medill School at Northwestern University, occasionally (perhaps a few times a year, perhaps less often) students would commit the unspeakable — for a variety of reasons or claims of ignorance– and plagiarize. There were a range of consequences.

Recently I had my own tapdance around plagiarism. (Not mine, mind you.) Speaking to an editor at the Albany Times-Union in the early morning this past February, I was a little confused about who did what when; but it was clear the subject of the call was plagiarism.

Chunks of a bill introduced by New York State Senator Greg Ball were also in a Huffington Post blog by Chicago Public High School junior Donald Rapier, a participant in the program, Youth Narrating Our World. The teen at Lindblom Math & Science Academy was one of the most prolific in the mentorship initiative I direct through The OpEd Project.

I was desperately trying to recall if I was strong enough in my emphasis on original work and integrity in our convenings. He’s young, I thought, maybe he didn’t understand. I called Donald about his essay on the documentary, “Blackfish.” He reminded me of the drafts he worked on painstakingly several weeks earlier and that I edited and posted to Huffington Post. I called the Times-Union editor back to stand by Donald.

Oh no, the editor quickly corrected me. It was quite clear it was Ball (as it turned out his staffer) who plagiarized the 17-year-old student. The story of blatant plagiarism was picked up by scores of newspapers and websites; Donald even appeared on TV. The staffer was fired. The senator invited Donald to New York.

But from all of it, I best loved Donald’s published befuddled response to the reporter: “I’m a little disappointed that they wouldn’t reach out to me or even cite me. I don’t think it’s hard to put things in your own words,” Rapier said in an email to the Times-Union. Priceless.

From what I surmise from the recent bouts of phrase-theft, I believe you can separate the act by Six Degrees of Plagiarism. And I note dutifully that three of those four words in that phrase can be attributed to the original game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Each one of these is not a rationalization, but more like an excuse, adding up to a hexagon of inexcusable shortcuts.

  1. Too Young: This claim was made recently by Walsh who may have improperly cited or not cited at all some of his work at the Army College. This was also a problem for the Chicago State University interim provost earlier this year, who also reportedly plagiarized part of her dissertation.
  2. Too Stupid: The staffer working for N.Y. Sen. Ball may just collapse into this category and was fired for it. Had he not heard of a Google search? Bing? To think that thousands would not have seen the piece on Huffington Post is naïve at best.
  3. Too Rushed: BuzzFeed editors did some chest-beating apologizing recently over the serial plagiarizing of now fired staffer Benny Johnson. He cut and pasted in more than 40 stories. Time was not on his side on his decision to cut corners and go with someone else’s work a lot.
  4. Too Lazy: The New York Times reporter lifted text straight from Wikipedia, where you can find an historical list of major plagiarism incidents dating back to Aristotle.
  5. Too Ambitious: This is a big category and includes fabulists and plagiarists like Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke or Stephen Glass whose eyes on the prize of prize-wining journalism and resulting fame and fortune blinded them to the tedium of cold calling sources, man on the street interviews and doing their own work.
  6. Too Disconnected: Best-selling author and Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom already reached the pinnacle of fame and fortune and was accused of spending Tuesdays and other days of the week lifting texts from other places. He still sells a ton of books. Perhaps no one who cuts and pastes under his or her own byline has heard of .

Yes, we have editors, fact checking projects , public watchdogs, the Center for Public Integrity for goodness sake, all who hold media and public officials responsible and accountable for the originality of their words. We also each have a conscience. It’s wrong to take what you did not create, even if it simple to do. You don’t take candy from a baby or text from a website and call it your own. No matter how tempting.

“The world worships the original,” Jean Cocteau reminded us.

Perhaps we should not be so shocked– continually– that plagiarism is alive and well, with a robust following. We should merely yawn at each new incident of a quickly typing hack who depends on the public’s failure to discern what is original from what is stolen. Maybe the plagiarists rely on the fact that most folks are too quick to click, not knowing or caring about attribution, sourcing, citations or originality.

That may be true. But I still find it disappointing.

In the case of 17-year-old Rapier, whose work was plagiarized, he did not get his trip to New York earlier this summer as promised by Sen. Ball. In that learned lesson about the fragile state of wordsmithing ethics, someone who created good work on his own was let down once again by a culture that reinforces that the original is always there for the taking.

- Michele Weldon is an assistant professor emrita of journalism at Northwestern University.

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