Friday, August 17, 2012

Is It Plagiarism?

With the recent news about journalist Farid Zakaria's suspension (and reinstatement) by his employers because of an alleged instance of plagiarism, I thought it worthwhile to again muse a bit about this topic.  In case you've not read about the Zakaria case, you can find more about it online.  In brief, Zakaria is employed by Time Magazine to which he regularly contributes; he also hosts the CNN show, Farid Zakaria GPS.  He has been accused of plagiarizing an article in The New Yorker magazine written by academician, Jill Lepore. 

I don't want to rehash the news stories, so here I will provide just the bare facts: the original text purported to be plagiarized and what Zakaria wrote and published:

Original written by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker magazine: 

"As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the 'mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.'"

Text written by Farid Zakaria and published in his Time Magazine column:

"Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the "mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man."

Zakaria's employers, Time Magazine and CNN, apparently thought this was (or might be) plagiarism when they suspended him, and Zakaria has also indicated that he thinks it was plagiarism by apologizing for his actions:  "I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her [Lepore], to my editors at Time, and to my readers."

Others argue that this is not a case of plagiarism.  Jay Epstein, writing for The Daily Beast, concludes that it's not plagiarism because Zakaria acknowledged Winkler as the source of the information.  Epstein clearly misses the point because it's not Winkler that Zakaria is accused of plagiarizing, but Jill Lepore.  Those are apparently her words, her phrasing, and her interpretation of Winkler's work.  It's clear that the overall structure of the paragraph, the general points being made, and the specific examples were taken without attribution from Lepore's article.  A few words have been changed here and there, but it's essentially the same paragraph. 

Although some would argue that it's not plagiarism because the paragraphs are not exactly the same, this is a common misconception.  Students and other novice writers often think that, by changing a few words and phrases here and there, they can avoid the charge of plagiarism.  However, this belief is not supported by most definitions of plagiarism: "an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author"  There are a number of definitions out there, but I like this one because it specifies "imitating the language and thoughts of another author", not just the text.  It leaves no wiggle room; changing a few words does not alter the fact that you've taken someone else's ideas and thoughts and portrayed them as your own.  

However, it is possible that two authors could use similar phraseology to describe something.  Could this have been an accident...that both Zakaria and Lepore, after reading Winkler's work, would write almost the same paragraph? I doubt it, and Zakaria clearly admits that he copied Lepore.  The only question is whether Zakaria thought that by changing a few words it would not be plagiarism or whether he was well aware that he was taking another author's ideas and representing them as his own.  He also might have read Lepore's article and concluded that if he had studied Winkler's work (as Lepore apparently did), he also would have come up with the same interpretation and was equally capable of writing a similarly well-worded summary....hence he felt no compunction about copying Lepore's summary.  I've encountered people who were both lazy and arrogant and would justify taking someone else's wording without attribution because they believe that they would have written something similar, had they the time to read the original work.  I'm not saying that's the case with Zakaria; I'm just pointing out that this is one way some plagiarizers justify their actions (based on my past encounters with such people). 

We will likely never know what Zakaria was thinking when he wrote his article but there is little doubt that this paragraph was plagiarized from another author. It was a stupid thing to do, particularly by someone so much in the public eye.  The question is whether it was part of a pattern of unethical behavior or just an isolated lapse in judgement?  Ultimately, CNN and Time Magazine considered this one instance against all the other work Zakaria has produced and decided that it was an "unintentional error".  Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story.  Others have begun coming out of the woodwork, making additional accusations (which were later retracted).  It will be instructive to see how this ultimately affects Zakaria's career.

Those of us in science will likely encounter a case of plagiarism at some point in our careers......a student's or possibly an accusation made against us.  Even someone who is basically ethical and honest can inadvertently commit plagiarism due to ignorance or sloppy note taking.  And we are all vulnerable to false accusations.  I posted previously about plagiarism but did not explore the subject deeply.  I started out in this post with an example that clearly meets the definition of set forth by a number of authorities on the subject....but one that not everyone understands or believes to be plagiarism.  In upcoming posts, I thought I would examine plagiarism a bit more and particularly consider some types of plagiarism where things are not so clear cut.  

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