A Note on Plagiarism

Several acquaintances of mine have been discussing the recent firing of Jared Keller, News Director for the online millennial news site Mic. (No, I am not a reader.) The cause? Plagiarism. According to Gawker (another site I don’t normally visit), Keller either plagiarized or improperly attributed sources at least 20 times over the past several months. Contrary to those who are reveling in Keller’s downfall while yammering on about the importance of “journalistic integrity,” I don’t see much of an issue with Keller’s cut-and-paste approach to journalism. As best as I can tell from briefly (and I do mean briefly) perusing Gawker’s list, not a shred of the information Keller lifted was unique to the original source; it appears Keller was just too lazy to go find it on his own. As for using someone else’s writing, well, none of the stolen prose was breaking new stylistic ground. Keller may have made his days run a little smoother by playing fast n’ loose with the time-honored rules of journalism, but he certainly wasn’t setting himself up for the Pulitzer.

Not that I condone plagiarism across the board. Had Keller stolen another reporter’s original, substantive research or acted as if he had, say, gone to a war-torn region of the world to do firsthand interviews when instead he just lifted quotes from another piece, then there would be more to get riled up about. In those instances Keller would clearly be trying to use other people’s meaningful accomplishments to advance (or at least maintain) his own career. Here, however, Keller was just doing what many other online writers, be they bloggers or social-media commenters, do: lift and reuse bits and pieces they pick up from the numerous sources they peruse each day, often without giving a second thought about attribution issues. Are they wrong for doing so, especially when they are unlikely to benefit in any noticeable way? My instincts say they are not, unless there’s more at stake—and there rarely is.

Online media is cheap to produce, easy to consume, and often forgotten about within a day or two (or maybe just hours). This is especially true with news stories which are practically out of date the moment they are published. More detailed articles, like those which appear in magazines or journals, have a longer shelf life, and they also require a deeper investment to both compose and read. One of the reasons why is because they are often built off of original and sometimes highly detailed research by the author who then attempts to reproduce it in a manner which his audience will both appreciate and learn from. There seems to me to be a much higher need to protect that form of writing from plagiarists and to root-out those who steal it.

The stakes are higher for academic publishing. Because most professorial careers are made through scholarship rather than teaching, plagiarism is an especially egregious offense—and it should be. To use an example from legal academia, a single law review pieced published in an elite journal like the Harvard Law Review or the Yale Law Journal could mean the difference between tenure or no tenure. It could also mean the difference between teaching at the University of Chicago rather than giving night classes at the YMCA. Law reviews have very exacting citation standards, which probably helps offset the temptation to plagiarize published material. But as those who have worked as research assistants or law-review editors well know (I have worked as both), a disturbingly large number of legal academics rip-off student contributions with nary an acknowledgment. Self-plagiarism, such as recycling lines from earlier work without citation, is also a problem in legal academia, though perhaps not a widespread one.

For my part, I try to be diligent about citing sources on Opus Publicum and in the articles I write. For starters, sources can and often do provide authority, which is important when making an argument for/against some position or another. Second, other minds have done a lot of heavy lifting already on the topics I write about; why reinvent the wheel? Call me lazy, but I’d rather send readers to digest those materials themselves rather than rewrite their findings over and over again. And last, it’s courteous to cite. Just as I appreciate it when other websites and blogs link to me, thus elevating my readership (at least temporarily), I suspect others appreciate the referrals I give them. Although I am far from perfect and have probably have lifted a phrase or two from something I read then forgot about, I imagine the plagiarism police have better things to do than Google through the approximately 250,000 words already housed on this blog.