Plagiarism accusations have enveloped my morning read, the Globe and Mail newspaper. If one wanted to be generous, perhaps the word might have been imitation, rather than plagiarism, although the Western University professors I worked with wouldn’t have seen the difference (hat tip Dictionary.com):
1. 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: It is said that he plagiarized Thoreau’s plagiarism of a line written by Montaigne. Synonyms: appropriation, infringement, piracy, counterfeiting; theft, borrowing, cribbing, passing off.
2. a piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation: “These two manuscripts are clearly plagiarisms,” the editor said, tossing them angrily on the floor.
1. a result or product of imitating.
2. the act of imitating.
3. a counterfeit; copy.
4. a literary composition that imitates the manner or subject of another author or work.
5. Biology . mimicry.
I’ve never thought there was any difference between the two, but the sad reality is that some professional writers and editors don’t agree with me on that. “Imitation” is allowed in this world of Hurry-up Offence Publishing, even though “plagiarism” used to be a Capital Offence in the world of professional media. Sadly, in the age of Google, the ease of access to the ideas of others is such that to many people outside the world of academia, someone else’s ideas can be adopted without attribution. Particularly when the lowest class of writers (I say that tongue in cheek) are involved, namely bloggers.
Starting in 2007, I started to notice occasional, and perhaps coincidental, imitation of the facts, proprietary research and first hand opinions published in this blog space by professional writers, including those from Canada’s National Newspaper. The very Globe and Mail that is being pummeled this week for using its Public Editor as though she was some crisis communications expert cum Haldeman, rather than the independent arbiter of justice she was purported to be. Instead of complaining to the Ontario Press Council, I teased, I cajoled, and pointed out the offending paragraphs in subsequent blog posts. I even went on a “hunger strike” of sorts. Eventually, the incidences stopped. Whether by happenstance or design, or the fact that there never was a real problem in the first place — I’ll never know.
If I’m lucky, perhaps Professor Carol Wainio will have a look at these examples herself, and give me an independent read:
The only difference between my half-dozen experiences and the Margaret Wente / Dan Gardner situation is that Ms. Wente borrowed from the work of another professional journalist; that gets attention! According to the Globe’s analysis of its own trials, opinion writers are allowed to borrow the very ideas and research of other professional journalists, without attribution, provided they advance the thinking. I find this a remarkable conclusion to reach, but it only confirms my earlier point. Google has somehow nationalized the ideas of others.
The tragic thing is that I agree with most of what Ms. Wente writes on a week-to-week basis.
The Globe’s attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet last Friday speaks volumes. There really is a double standard at work here. Although the Globe isn’t the only organ to avoid holding itself to the standard it sets for others, it does put itself out there as the most pristine and authoritative of Canadian dailies. Which makes Slyvia Stead’s multi-year cover-up exercise so galling. The fact that Editor-in-Chief and respected Boy Wonder John Stackhouse has now come out to deal with the backlash doesn’t take away from the fact that it took Colby Cosh to get his attention in the first place.
Unwittingly, today’s Globe told us all we need to know about where this scandal fits in the newspaper’s ethos. And that’s what is most troubling, if confirmatory, to me.
First, the question of “who” will pay for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s Chicago trade mission expenses made the “Globe Index” on Page One this morning, but not Steve Ladurantaye’s story about the Globe taking “action on allegations against columnist Margaret Wente”. The reverse of how the New York Times owns up to the facts when its writers go off the rails.
Second, the length of the Globe’s story about an unquestionably appropriate Chicago plane ticket was given more space (793 words) than Mr. Ladurantaye’s story (463 words) about an unquestionably inappropriate theft of The Ottawa Citizen’s intellectual property.
Third, the Globe allowed Ms. Wente to devote more attention today to her detractors than the more meaty problem at hand. Her particular emphasis on how people didn’t “bother to think twice” to “retweet” Ms. Wainio’s “allegations” which wound up “smear[ing] my reputation” is ironic. But I certainly understand the concern about preserving her reputation. I’m one of the many folks who Ms. Wente’s colleague John Barber has unfairly smeared over the years for having a role at the TPA (see prior post “Barber’s Blazing Beretta” Jan 28-09); and I did nothing wrong, unlike Ms. Wente. Welcome to the Smear Club.
Luckily for Ms. Wente, the Globe let her directly attack those who did her wrong and explain her actions, all at Globe (and subscriber) expense.
But how does the Globe deal with the complaints of non-staff when they’ve been smeared? They usually ignore you, although you’re free to submit a Letter to the Editor for publication (which may or may not be printed in its entirety). Then they make you threaten to sue for libel. Then they make you follow through and actually sue, since the Globe receives dozens of such threats each year, most of which die a natural death as the wounds heal or the legal budget exceeds the individual’s capacity to seriously defend their reputation. Once you’ve started spending tens of thousands of dollars to make them take you seriously, their lawyers at Bersenas Jacobsen Chouest Thomson Blackburn LLP rag the puck, Demand Particulars, bob and weave, etc.
Eventually, once they realize they should cut their losses before the facts actually come out at a trial, they run a tiny “Clarification” or “Correction” beside an advert on page A2. And if they pay you money for your trouble, they make you sign a confidentiality agreement so that no one else can know they capitulated on the original defamation accusation. As opaque as you can be. Or, at least, so I hear.
I feel badly for Ms. Wente. She has a great “voice”, and her “only” crime is that she’s been playing by the rules that too many others have followed for years. But that doesn’t make it right. Ideas are unique, as is proprietary research – both deserve attribution, whatever the source.
Now that she knows what it’s like to be smeared, unfairly or otherwise, Ms. Wente might make a great Public Editor at the Globe. I suspect they’ll need a new one before the year is out.
(this post, like all blogs, is an Opinion Piece)