Adventures in Ethics and Science

Plagiarism is bad.

My students know that plagiarism is bad. You’d think a major wire service would know it, too.

But it would seem that maybe the Associated Press doesn’t know that failing to properly cite sources is plagiarism. Or perhaps the AP does know, but doesn’t care. When your business is built on the premise that you are a reliable source of information, it seems to me that this is a very bad strategy.

Over at Huffington Post, Larissa Alexandrovna relates the details. She did painstaking legwork to put together a story about changes to the U.S. guidelines about who gets access to classified information. She and her editor wrote the story. The AP picked up the story. The AP, however, didn’t credit Alexandrovna’s article (and all the research that it was built on) as a source:

My editor and I … co-authored an article, after nearly two weeks of work, about the Hadley changes. The piece covered an overview of the most questionable changes, as there were many subtle changes in general. One key area we focused on was what appeared to be the relaxing of sexual discrimination guidelines. …

In response, several GLBT groups contacted us and issued a statement. We gave the advocacy groups our notes and article, which they then took to the AP and demanded that the story be covered. The AP was given our article and maybe our notes.

On March 14, 2006, the AP did their own article, left out any attribution to me or my publication and lifted not only my research but also whole sections of my article for their own (making cosmetic changes of course).

We contacted an AP senior editor and ombudsman both and both admitted to having had the article passed on to them, and both stated that they viewed us as a blog and because we were a blog, they did not need to credit us. What we are or are not is frankly irrelevant. What is relevant is that by using a term like blog to somehow excuse plagiarism, the mainstream press continues to lower the bar for acceptable behavior. It need not matter where the AP got the information, research, and actual wording from. What matters is that if they use it in part or in whole, they must attribute properly. A blog or a small press publication or grads students working in the corner of a library all equally deserve credit for their work, period.

Unfortunately this is far too common and has happened to me and to other writers and bloggers far too frequently. This time, however, we made a point of tape recording the AP apparatchiks admitting to taking our work and using it without attribution, stating “we do not credit blogs”.

While they will not credit us in any way; they will instead credit advocacy groups, as though that somehow excuses them from having to attribute rightfully. This is what their first article on the documents said: “Lesbian and gay advocacy groups recently found the change in an 18-page document distributed by National security adviser Stephen Hadley on Dec. 29, without public notice.” Yes, the groups had found it in my article, which they gave to the AP.

Yet, even after the advocacy groups reminded the AP of where they got the information, the news organization would not provide attribution.

(Emphasis in the original.)

The article from The Raw Story came out March 13. The AP version came out March 14.

Let’s take things slowly, so everyone can keep up:

Representing the words or ideas of others as your own is plagiarism.

If you use someone else’s research and analysis to build your story, you must cite it. Otherwise, you’re committing plagiarism.

It doesn’t matter whether the source is a professional journalist for a major media outlet or a small press, a writer for an online publication or a blog, or a student or private citizen. If you use their words or ideas, you must cite the source. Otherwise, you’re committing plagiarism.

If you fail to cite your sources, in essence you’re a liar. And, if you’re a liar, there’s no reason at all to trust any of the “information” you are putting out as authoritative.

I trust that all the stories about the utter depravity of the “mainstream media” are overblown. Surely, once the major news outlets who pick up stories from the AP — the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Times, etc. — become aware of this situation, they will take action.

Any newspaper with a shred of integrity would know better than to pick up reports from a wire service that thought plagiarism was no big thing. If it is indeed the case that AP senior editor and ombudsman make it a policy not to properly cite sources, newspapers aware of this policy would have to stop using AP stories. If we don’t know the real source for a story, how can we believe it? And, if we know that a wire service asserts its “right” to plagiarize, we have even better reason to doubt the credibility of the stories they distribute.

To continue to do business with an outlet so unclear on basic journalistic ethics would call the newspaper’s own journalistic ethics into question.

But I don’t believe that the MSM is that far gone … do you?

I suppose we’re about to find out.

Hat tip to Science and Politics and Shakespeare’s Sister, the sources bringing this story to my attention. (See how easy it can be to cite your sources?)

Also, mad props to Seed Media Group, whose scrappy legal team stands ready to smite the wire service that plagiarizes any of its ScienceBloggers. Just in case you were wondering.

Comments

  1. #1 MtMan900
    March 28, 2006

    A very disconcerting thing to happen. Plagiarism, no matter who does it (Domenech included), is a problem.

    However, I have to warn you about using the term “MSM”. It’s a very republican-charged term. A similar term that is gaining momentum on the left is Traditional Media, coined by Kos of dKos.

  2. #2 coturnix
    March 28, 2006

    Jay Rosen (of PressThink blog and NYU) is worried that Larissa is not naming names (the “AP apparathcicks”) and has not posted the transcript of the phone conversation. If she does that (or if a lawyer looks at that and decides the case is worth pursuing), we’ll learn more.

    Not that the MSM has not done that many times before. In the early days of newspapers getting into blogging, there were many instances of local bloggers (or even commenters) breaking a story and not getting proper attribution. In a relatively small local paper (like Greensboro News & Record), the power of local bloggers (and a fantastic paper editor with a good sense of the online future of the papers) changed that very quickly and they are now a paragon of virtue and an example for other papers how to collaborate with local bloggers.

    Of course, AP is global and huge and it will take a much higher stink by the bloggers to get something to change.

  3. #3 outeast
    March 28, 2006

    Totally agree that sources should be cited and that this is unacceptable plagiarism.

    However, an observation (not quite a caveat, but close):

    With regard to AP’s reliability as a wire service, what is most critical in a fact-based report is that the facts be checked and true. A news source using AP could quite justly say that with regard to the reliability of the information fact-checking the original data is the critical issue. From a reliability standpoint, identifying who did the original legwork is not necessary where the facts themselves can be verified. (I emphasize this does not excuse plagiarism; it is merely to point out that where the facts themselves are publically available and verifiable, the issue ceases to be a matter of reliability and becomes a question of ethics.)

    Oh, and expecting the mainstream media to fly into a state of high dudgeon over plagiarizing a blog? Yeah, right.

  4. #4 RPM
    March 28, 2006

    Here is an example from the sports blogosphere. Colin Cowherd (a radio personality on ESPN) used a blog’s material on his show last week without giving them credit. Cowherd initially acted like a dick, but after lots of pressure from a bunch of people, he eventually caved an formally appologized on his show. It could be an important turning point, at least in sports blogging.

  5. #5 Abel PharmBoy
    March 28, 2006

    “Representing the words or ideas of others as your own is plagiarism.”

    Not to excuse anyone who violates ethical writing principles, but at least Jayson Blair made up his own stuff.

  6. #6 Bill Hooker
    March 28, 2006

    But I don’t believe that the MSM is that far gone … do you?

    I got five bucks says this story gets buried, or never even makes a peep. Assholes.

    This is why I no longer get any news from the MSM. I have to have trusted news sources, because I can’t read everything and interview everyone and be everywhere with my own camera, and I simply do not trust Newstainment Inc. I trust my blogroll instead, at least to a first approximation.

  7. #7 Honeybee
    March 28, 2006

    I am rather horrified to find that a major news source does not consider blogs to be…well, original writing I suppose. By stealing an article from a blog and stating “we don’t cite blogs” is like saying “the words on blogs don’t exist until we reprint them, and then they become ours.”
    I know I’ve seen several places that provide the proper way to site blogs and blog entries as sources. There is no excuse for this.

    They obviously thought they could get away with it. And they may still be able to. I hope the major papers do more than slap them on the wrist, if they even go that far.

    The idea that someone from the AP could swoop in and steal my writing off my blog and not credit me is horrifying. Of course everyone who read my piece later would assume *I* am the plagerist.

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