Getting to The Source: Preventing Plagiarism - by Chip Scanlan

Re-used with kind permission from Poynter Online for Journalists: www.poynter.org


When the sin is plagiarism, the crime of wordnapping, we admonish, castigate, and eliminate. We fire, encourage resignation, shun. We drive the offenders out, like the temple's moneychangers. We take away their keyboards, their access to the printing press.

What we don't do is focus on how to avoid the problem in the first place.

After reviewing the literature of plagiarism — ranging from news stories to academic texts — I find, sadly, no reason to revise a paragraph I wrote more than four years ago in "Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century":

Some experts attribute plagiarism to a psychological problem.

Although that may be valid, I think the real problem is that the industry has failed to address adequately the problem. In its Code of Ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists says only, "Never plagiarize." As a profession, journalism has not provided writers and editors with the specific guidelines and standards they need to avoid plagiarism....


We live and work in an unparalleled time of access to information. Technology has opened a bottomless hole. We owe it to our readers and ourselves to find ways to avoid being swallowed up by it.

Until now, the industry's response has been largely reactive: We punish. We'd have a better chance of avoiding that option if we focused more on prevention.

What causes plagiarism? Twenty years ago in the Los Angeles Times, media writer David Shaw provided a litany that covered most, if not all, of the root causes:

Laziness. Sloppy work habits. Deadline pressure. Writer's block. Temporary — or chronic — emotional problems. A conscious or unconscious desire to be punished. In the case of several columnists who have plagiarized, the problem is simply that in the day-after-day-after-day grind, they come up empty one day and panic.

Perhaps the most common cause of plagiarism is a fear of failure — or a fear of not meeting one's own (or one's editors' or peers') high standards.

To Shaw's list, I would add: confusion over what constitutes plagiarism, a dearth of industry commitment to educating newsroom staffs about what constitutes plagiarism, and, more important,a shortageof practical strategies to avoid its trap. These range from individual work habits to an institutional commitment to intellectual honesty that is the foundation of good reporting and writing and requires buy-in from every level in a news organization's hierarchy.

For instance, how many news organizations make plagiarism prevention a part of new employee orientation and continuing training efforts? As Roy Peter Clark observed recently, plagiarism comes in several shades from black and white to gray.

It's easy to spot when you place an offending passage alongside its source, but what about the practice of reading a quote in a competing publication and then using it in your story after you've checked the accuracy with the source, or failing to attribute a quote to its source?

Can you plagiarize yourself-- reusing passages from your coverage of a running story to provide background?

What if you rewrite a passage from another source, and even though you phrase it in your own words, you don't acknowledge that the ideas are someone else's?

How do reporters balance expectations to "write with authority" -- on deadline -- with calls for greater transparency about sourcing?

The emergence of online news provides its own ethical questions. If you provide a hyperlink to information in a story do you have to attribute it as well?

Erasing "stolen words,"in plagiarism scholar Thomas Mallon's memorable phrase, from newswriting means owning up and, in many cases, disowning journalistic traditions — ranging from recycling our own reports and rewriting our competition to using other publications as a tip sheet — long rooted in economic imperatives.

In her 1995 Columbia Journalism Review survey of plagiarism cases, Trudy Lieberman blamed "an evolving journalistic culture that has come to rely heavily on borrowing and quoting from other publications as a substitute for original research. Reporters also tend to use the same sources, who offer the same pithy quote or put the same spin on an issue."

Preventing plagiarism also may require wider adoption of literary devices, such as footnotes, source boxes, and bibliographies, once limited to books, academic writing, and in a growing journalistic trend, to provide documentary scaffolding in narrative and investigative reporting. By requiring reporters to reveal their sources, these provide a useful, if not foolproof, guard against fabrication, the second peril of nonfiction writing while also demystifying a process that invites public confusion and cynicism.

A list of plagiarism avoidance tips reprinted from my textbook bears repeating. Beyond them, newsrooms need to focus more attention on:

The skill of paraphrasing. Teach reporters how to use research and analysis without bogging down readers in minutiae or stealing the work of others.

Reporters would do well to remember this advice that Judy Hunter, a teacher at Grinnell College in Iowa,gave first-year students: "In a bad paraphrase, you merely substitute words, borrowing the sentence structure or the organization directly from the source. In a good paraphrase you offer your reader a wholesale revision, a new way of seeing the text you are paraphrasing. You summarize, you reconstruct, you tell your reader about what the source has said, but you do so entirely in your own words, your own voice, your own sentence structure, your own organization. As this definition reveals, paraphrase is a very difficult art."

The role of technology. Computers facilitate both the "cut and paste" reflex that can lead to plagiarism and the "search" command that catches today's plagiarist in his own web of deceit. Why can't we use existing capability, such as footnoting, and perhaps even develop other computer tools that can help journalists scrambling to become knowledgeable, while the clock is ticking, to track and communicate their reporting footsteps in a fast, efficient, and credible fashion?

Turnitin, an Oakland, Calif. company, which sells plagiarism detection software,offers a paraphrasing lesson and other valuable resourceson its website.

Sharing best practices. My Poynter colleague Bob Steele returned from the Seattle Times last week with news of a technique I'd not heard of: using a dramatically different font for research material to avoid using someone else's words as your own. As with any craft, practitioners often rely on personal methods that can be of broader value.

A headline over David Shaw's 1984 report on plagiarism called it "the skeleton in journalism's closet." It shouldn't be.

Journalism is largely an attributive art,one reliant on the testimony, reports, research, and often uncredited contributions of others to furnish society with the news and information it needs.

By the time a plagiarist is punished, all of us lose --those who report, write, and edit the news as well as those who consume it.Plagiarism should be punished, but we all win if can we learn how to prevent it in the first place.