Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Plagiarism in the News

"Live from Venice" blogger Mary Kay Ruppel recently posted a comment to this blog that, in between calling Old Word Wolf nasty names, picks a quarrel with our use of the term "plagiarism." She calls it "very broad and incorrect."  We are sorry to say Ruppel is not only wrong about this, but also sorry to see that she continues to demonstrate in her own blog that she does not know when she plagiarizes.  As it turned out, her nasty-gram and her partially plagiarized Feb. 10 blog post foreshadowed this morning mail's notice of a relevant article posted at The Poynter Institute's website by Craig Silverman (founder of "Regret the Error").  Silverman comments on the news  that a Connecticut newspaper group, The Journal Register Company, now requires reporters to take a plagiarism knowledge test.  The relevance is that Ruppel's post demonstrates most of the errors that the test focuses on.

Here's the evidence. Ruppel's Feb. 10 post, headlined  “The Degredation [sic] of the Election Process," contains some distinctive phrasing:  a super PAC operator is a wealthy donor to conservative causes.  That’s followed by a quote attributed to a man Ruppel did not interview.  Ruppel says the donor’s strategy is a plan to play in the contests ahead in order to escalate the battle among a few dozen wealthy Republicans to influence their party’s choice of a presidential nominee. Near the bottom of her post, she says his “money played a pivotal part in Santorum’s unexpected wins in three states last week.”

Two days before Ruppel’s post, New York Times writers Jim Rutenberg and Nicholas Confessore published a story under the headline “A Wealthy Backer Likes the Odds on Santorum.”

Here’s how the professionals describe the super-PAC man:  “Foster Friess, a wealthy donor to conservative causes...” In the same story, they identify an interview that yielded a quote from Friess that Ruppel copies without acknowledging who held the interview, when it was conducted, or – particularly relevant to this plagiarism discussion -- how she comes to know that Friess claims he "couldn't figure out why Santorum was even bothering to go through the effort."  We're pretty sure Ruppel knows what he says because Rutenberg and Confessore published their hard work in the New York Times. Plagiarism happens whenever a writer reports a source's quote as if she has has first-hand access when she hasn't, and then fails to include the honest acknowledgment that she's lifted the quotate from a newspaper article that someone else reported.

By this point, it appears that Ruppel has failed the Journal Register's plagiarism quiz questions 1 and 2.

She plagiarizes again when she copies, and does not say from where, the conclusion that the millionaire intends to ‘play’ the contests ahead in order to escalate the battle among a few dozen wealthy Republicans to influence their part’s choice of a presidential nominee.

Ruppel's blog post provides two additional examples relevant to this explication -- on "the other side" of the ledger.

When Ruppel writes that the super-PAC operator played a “pivotal part” in Santorum’s “unexpected wins,” she synonym swaps (the NYT guys wrote “pivotal role”), suggesting that she's trying to avoid a charge of copying word for word. Ironically, she really didn’t have to worry about that because a phrase such as “pivotal role” is a cliché that appears thousands of times a day in printed matter across the land – it’s nearly an idiomatic expression in the language.  On the other hand, her studied process of changing out a word or two here and in other places in the blog post might suggest the covering of tracks -- which the honest attributor doesn’t have to do.

And finally, in all fairness, we are happy to point out that deep in the heart of Ruppel’s post, she nearly gets it right and should get an E for effort if not actual achievement.  Ruppel writes: "Yesterday I read a column in our liberal newspaper about the poor job Romney had done as Governor of Massachusetts. A year into Romney's term, Massachusetts began to stop losing jobs.  The state added jobs every year until Romney stepped down in 2007. Even so,according to Jia Lynn Yang, The Washington Post, he did a poor job."

We added the italics to highlight Yang's sentences -- complete and word for word. The rules of avoiding plagiarism require that any exact wording requires the display of quotation marks.  A reference in the next sentence, which takes up a different part of the discussion, is inadequate to honestly point Ruppel's readers to the sentences she copied.

So, what's Ruppel's quiz grade?  We calculate 2 out of 5 plagiarism standards were not violated in the writing of Ruppel's Feb. 10 column, making her score a dismal 40 percent by default (no press releases or blogs, the topics of questions 3 and 4, were involved).

As for Ruppel's charge that we don't know the definition of plagiarism, here's a close paraphrase of one that's widely circulated and which I use as the guideline for all the college-level writing classes that I teach: Plagiarism means: using another writer's words or ideas without honest attribution.

Do I have to cite my source for this definition? No, not really.  It's common knowledge -- which means that everyone knows this. Everyone except ....

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