Sunday, June 29, 2008

Plagiarism in High Places

The byline on today's story is that of the CEO of a local community Hospital. But if readers expect "Increase your child’s health and safety this summer” to be straight from the top administrator's pen, they would be wrong.

It appears the administrator is a plagiarist – an unintentional one, most likely – but it’s her name on a Charlotte Sun "Health and Fitness" article that appears nearly word-for-word on a copyrighted Web site called Stretcher Dot Com.

It looks like CEO Wendy Brandon -- or more likely the hospital's paid copywriter – has “borrowed” extensively from a material researched and written by a professional speaker and author named Brenda Nixon. Nixon hales from Ohio and is unlikley to read the local paper. So what's the harm in stealing three or four paragraphs from her?

For one thing, Nixon earns her living through her pen and offers her articles for reprint. The agreement -- if she is typical of most freelancers -- is she gets paid and the stories carry her by-line. So, unless the hospital has hired Brenda Nixon herself under a contract that allows the hospital to alter content, then the remarkable similarities between Nixon’s and Brandon’s versions require some explanation. The most probable one is plagiarism.

This particular plagiarism example raises the question, is it plagiarism when the copyist alters some of the wording to "make it her own?" After all, the copyist has made changes.

The answer is, yes. Plagiarism doesn't have to be an exact, unvaried, word-for-word copy. Plagiarism happens when an idea is co-opted. Plagiarism occurs when the order of ideas (story structure) is copied. Plagiarism happens when the underlying sentence structure is copied. Plagiarism is not avoided by changing a couple of words or flopping the order of one or two sentences. For example, in the case of the Nixon-Brandon pieces below, changing "plea" to "beg" and substituting "help" for "do the trick" is simply synonym swapping. Moving around a couple of phrases about how much kids like dogs not only doesn't avoid plagiarism, the ruse strongly suggests the hospital's writer was attempting to hide her/his tracks.**

Here are the details.

Don’t vacation in the ER -- By Brenda Nixon at

Nixon: Prevent sunburn by using an SPF 15 or greater sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Keep in mind that the sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. If you're venturing outdoors with a newborn (0-6 weeks), do not use sunscreen on their delicate skin. Rather, protect them from direct sunlight with a bonnet or cap, sunglasses, and lightweight cotton clothing. An umbrella can do the trick too. I've been to infinite softball games where resourceful parents positioned their newborn under a shade tree while enjoying the game.

CEO Brandon: Be sun smart. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Practice safe sun fun. Use at least an SPF 15 sunscreen, even on cloudy days, and reapply every two hours. Don’t use sunscreen on newborns. Instead, protect them from the sun with a bonnet, sunglasses and lightweight cotton clothing. An umbrella can also help by creating shade.

Nixon: Before I let my children even play in the sand I check for sticks, glass, broken toys or droppings from friendly creatures.

Brandon: Check in and around sandboxes for sticks, glass or droppings from friendly creatures.

Nixon: When loading everyone in the car, feel car seats and buckles first to know how hot they are. The sun can heat a car's interior to a scorching 140 degrees and that's enough to burn tender skin. Many parents store beach towels in the car to throw over hot seats.

CEO Brandon: Keep in mind that your car can be a source of injury from the sun as well. Summer sun can heat your car’s interior to 140 degrees. That’s enough to blister young skin. Feel seats and buckles before loading kids in the car. You may also consider carrying beach towels in the car to make a layer between a child’s legs and the sizzling seat.

The next two comparisons are especially interesting; the copied version happed to be word for word with no attempt to swap synonyms but even more telling, it reproduces the error of using "breath" instead of "breathe."

Nixon: Always be on guard when your child is around contained water sources. Toddlers are so top-heavy they easily fall head-first into pools, fountains, and buckets. When they can't maneuver their head out to breath, even an inch of water can be deadly - within five minutes.

CEO Brandon: Always be on guard when your child is around contained water sources – buckets of water, toilets, pools and ponds. Toddlers are top-heavy so they easily fall headfirst into pools, fountains and buckets. If they can't maneuver their head out to breath, even an inch of water can be deadly – within five minutes.

Nixon: Most children eventually plead, "Can I have sparklers?" And many adults add these to their arsenal of summer fireworks thinking, "What's the harm?" The harm is, these little sticks of colored sparks heat to 1,800 degrees, melt nylon clothing (I know from experience) and cause severe burns. More than 5,000 children under 14 are injured every year by fireworks. Prevent regrets by enjoying professionally-run fireworks displays and forego shooting them off at home, where most accidents happen.

CEO Brandon: Most children eventually beg, “Can we have sparklers?” And many adults buy them thinking there’s no harm. However, these thin sticks of highlighted sparks burn at 1,800 degrees, melt nylon clothing and can cause severe skin wounds and start fires. Pyrotechnics, including sparklers, injure over 5,000 young children every year. Enjoy professionally run fireworks and say “no” to shooting them off at home, where most accidents happen.

Nixon: Dogs are kid-magnets. When we walk in the park with our miniature dachshund children run to bravely pet him. Usually I will stop the tot with, "Ask if you can pet the dog." Be cautious around all animals. Teach your youngster to always ask before touching a dog. Every year children suffer injury from dogs that "look cute."

CEO Brandon: Dogs are kid magnets. Every year children suffer bites from dogs that “look cute.” Teach your tot to ask permission to touch someone’s dog. Be watchful around animals and never assume they won’t bite.

**All these ways to plagiarize are noted in Florida's Sunshine State Standards, the state's high school curriculum requirements. In the same lessons, students starting in the 10th grade are taught to cite their sources, using both formal and informal methods. The lessons are repeated in the 11th and 12th grades. For those students who go on to college, the same concepts are reiterated in Freshman Compostion I & II classes all over the nation.

Thus, people who offer up their communications and marketing skills -- and degrees -- in order to land jobs with community hospitals are in no position to say "I didn't know." They have known since the 10th grade that stealing the ideas and words of others is wrong -- and easily avoidable.

Not one reader, I'll wager, would think less of the article, the hospital, its staff or services if the material (a) had been presented by the original writer as a fair example of her by-lined work or (b) had used appropriate attributions in the text. Readers might even have thought better of the hospital if its paid writers had done some research and used their own skills at wording and paraphrasing to present an originally written piece.

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