< To Catch A Thief


Friday, March 19, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: Earlier this month, in the wake of two recent plagiarism scandals at The New York Times and at The Daily Beast website, The Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt called plagiarism a “mortal journalistic sin.” But for all the concern about one of journalism’s greatest crimes, newsrooms don't seem to have any real method to deter it, at least nothing they're willing to pay for. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Craig Silverman recently wrote an article championing the use of plagiarism detection software. For a fee, editors can run articles through the software, which then compares them to several databases and millions of articles on the Web. Silverman believes that even the threat of random checks would be enough to greatly reduce or even eliminate incidents of plagiarism. Craig, welcome back to the show.


BOB GARFIELD: Any false positives in the history of this software?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: I would have to think so. And, in fact, it’s by no means a foolproof solution, and I don't think it’s the only way to detect plagiarism. But what’s kind of amazing to me is that it just seems like nobody in newspapers or magazines, aside from some academic journals, are really interested in trying this.

BOB GARFIELD: Maybe that’s because in academia plagiarism is one of the few career-ending offenses. In newspapers, historically you could get caught and still keep your job. That has changed somewhat over the years. Do you think news organizations simply don't take the problem that seriously?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: If you read the codes of ethics for professional organizations in journalism, if you read the statements of principles at pretty much any newspaper that bothers to put them down on paper, plagiarism is basically akin to a sin in journalism. It is really that bad and that awful. And I suppose if you do it on purpose, it is supposed to be a career killer. The problem seems to be actually acting on those words, where we don't actually do anything to prevent it. And, of course, as you said, when it happens, people are treated differently.

BOB GARFIELD: For example, at The New York Times, Zachery Kouwe, a business writer, resigned, having been caught lifting passages from Wall Street Journal reporting on his beat. But about a year ago, Maureen Dowd was in a similar fix and, you know, she’s still writing her column.

CRAIG SILVERMAN: To be fair to Maureen Dowd, we're talking about one sentence, one time, in one column. With the other reporter they found repeated instances of taking stuff without attribution. But I also think that there has to be an element of prevention here, and why not use some technology to actually help people avoid the accidental plagiarism, which is pretty much anyone who’s caught, they say, oh, it was, you know, it was not really on purpose.

BOB GARFIELD: You just used the term “accidental plagiarism.” Do you think that any of these episodes has anything to do with accident, any of them, ever?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: I think it’s BS most of the time. But for somebody who really one time forgot to put some quotes around something or forgot to paraphrase something, it would be a shame for them to have that go into print when it could be caught beforehand and fixed.

BOB GARFIELD: Do you think readers really care?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: We tell readers that it’s unacceptable, and we tell readers that we won't do it. So whether they rank it high or not, the fact is that we declare to people that it’s really that important.

BOB GARFIELD: Is routinely putting your staff’s work through the plagiarism machine not kind of like frisking them every day as they leave the office, to see if they're absconding with office supplies? I mean, isn't – there’s this kind of presumption of guilt that’s a little gross?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: Instead of comparing it to that, I would actually compare it to, say, drug testing that goes on in professional sports. If you think about it, people have their work checked in college when they're in journalism school. So it’s kind of like if the NFL knew that people were tested in the NCAA but when they got to the NFL there was no testing required anymore. If plagiarists are such a bad thing and they're a brand killer and a morale killer, why wouldn't we just try a few things that can actually deter them or catch them?

BOB GARFIELD: Your piece is predicated on the notion that newspapers have not widely embraced this software, but some have bought it and are using it. What are their experiences?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: A couple of years ago, I spoke with a person at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and he told me they were using a service and they were doing sort of random checks with it. And the interesting thing about what he told me was people in the newsroom knew they were going to be testing stuff. And the fact that they never actually caught a plagiarist, he said after awhile people in the newsroom started looking at it as a good thing because for them it was reinforcing that, hey, we have an ethical, good newsroom; we're good reporters.

BOB GARFIELD: You mean, like I live in East Germany and Stasi’s got my back. Thank God for the secret police. Is that what you’re saying?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: No, that - that’s not what I'm saying, but that’s a good way to, to take it in a completely different direction. What I'm saying is basically –

[BOB LAUGHS] - people don't like working with plagiarists. They don't like what that does to their reputation and the kind of effect it can have on their work. So if you’re doing this and people are, you know, not really getting busted [LAUGHS] for plagiarism, then all of a sudden you can feel a lot more confident about the kind of newsroom you have.

BOB GARFIELD: If the service is as invaluable as you suggest, why do you suppose that newspapers haven't jumped at it?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: For the most part, it’s a cost issue, and that’s really understandable, especially [LAUGHS] right now. I got a quote from iThenticate, which is just one of many services. You’re looking at spending probably between five and ten grand a year on that service. There are other ones that are much less expensive. Comparatively, that’s quite affordable to avoid an incident of plagiarism. But the reality is that five or ten grand, for most news organizations right now, they see that as a lot of money and a very prohibitive cost.

BOB GARFIELD: Craig, as always, thanks a lot.


BOB GARFIELD: Craig Silverman is a columnist for The Columbia Journalism Review and editor of the blog Regrettheerror.com.