The First Sin

March 27, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

A month or so ago, I wrote a column about one of journalism's deadly sins: lying in a piece that is supposed to be non-fiction. In recent years, a number of high-profile writers have been called on the carpet for reporting stories that were either (1) improperly fact-checked, (2) partially made-up, or (3) complete fabrications. The movie Shattered Glass provided an account of one of these cases. (In an instance of irony, Mr. Glass, the film's subject, accused the screenwriters of misrepresenting portions of the story. This may be the case, but Shattered Glass never presented itself as non-fiction. Narrative movies are allowed to play fast and loose with the facts.)

But there's a bigger sin out there that often goes unnoticed: plagiarism. I learned early in life that it was wrong to copy someone else's words without proper attribution. I can't say at what age this lesson was drummed into my head, but it was during grade school. Even in the pre-Internet era, there were plenty of opportunites. Libraries contain numerous obscure reference materials that no teacher would be able to check. But I never did it. In fact, it never occured to me that it was an option.

Years later, when I began to write reviews, I was so paranoid about the possibility of unintentionally plagiarizing someone (having a phrase get stuck in my subconscious then be regurgiated in a review) that I avoided reading anything about a movie until after my view was in writing. Most writers are like me - hard-working men and women who find ways to reconstruct their thoughts on paper without seeking outside "help." On those occasions when someone has said something better than we could, we cite the source and use quotation marks. (I'm obsessive about this. In a recent review of Basic Instict, I used quotation marks for an unpublished 1992 review that I wrote. I didn't have to do that - I don't think one can plagiarize oneself - but it felt like the appropriate approach.)

I have been plagiarized. Numerous times. I stopped keeping count years ago. It happens so regularly that I have ceased being shocked, and maybe that's a bad thing. And those are only the times when someone has recognized the pilfering and alerted me to it. I'm guessing that represents less than 10% of the total number of incidents. The reality of the Internet is that it has made plagiarism an easy option. No longer is it necessary to pore over dusty volumes in the back room of some library. Now it can be done at home with a visit to Google and a Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V combination.

Most of my plagiarists are students writing papers. Their teachers catch them. I can recount one interesting recent instance. A high school teacher found "suspicious language" in one of his student's papers. He did a Google word search and found my review. He compared what his student had written to what I had on-line and found that there were too many similarities for it to be a coincidence. He gave the student an F. Then the student's parents got involved, claiming that their son had not done anything wrong. They argued that I had somehow gotten a copy of their son's paper and plagiarised him. It wasn't hard to defend myself against the charge. It was an old review - one that had originally been posted in, so all I had to do was point the parents and teacher to an archive of Usenet postings (which contain verifiable dates). This confirmed that I had written the review when the student in question was in first grade. The matter ended there, but I was irritated that I had been forced into the position of expending time and effort arguing this case.

Most of the time, I can dismiss high school students with a shrug. They're lazy or late, and do what's most expedient. Although I won't condone it, I'm not going to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. But when the offender is doing this professionally, I take action (especially if they're collecting a paycheck). In most cases, removal of the article containing the plagiarism (if it's on-line) or publishing a retraction (if it's in print) is acceptable. Thus far, I have been fortunate in that I haven't run into an author who denies the plagiarism (although I have heard a number of excuses), and all the editors I have communicated with have been helpful.

It amazes me how many readers have identified instances in which my reviews have been plagiarized. Frankly, I'm not sure I would recognize my own stuff in someone else's article. To those who are providing this policing, many thanks. Despite being the journalist's #1 sin, it can be difficult to spot because familiarity is needed with the original text. As consumers of words, we have a right to believe that what we are reading is the work of the person whose name appears on the byline. Anything less is an act of fraud.

Let me conclude by stating that this rumination was inspired by the recent case of Ben Domenech, a blogger who resigned from the Washington Post's website after being accused of plagiarism. For more information, check out the article.