Over the last few years, a number of reporters and writers have turned out to be serial plagiarists. Oh, they don’t admit this. They’ll say they forgot to put in quotemarks or that rules don’t apply to them. But if you and I did that, we’d be kicked out of school. Or maybe not.
The most recent accusation is CJ Werleman. His excuse has crumbled now that researchers have dug up over a dozen liftings of text from other people. But I want to focus on his excuse because it is illustrative:
The Harris zombies now accuse me of plagiarism. From 5 books & 100+ op-eds, they cite 2 common cliches and two summaries of cited studies
This sounds reasonable. After all, there are only so many ways you can state the same facts. And when you look at the quotes, if you were of a generous disposition, you might accept this response. The quotes aren’t completely verbatim. Maybe he did just happen to phrase things the same way other writers did.
But I find this excuse unlikely. In a great post on plagiarism, McArdle writes the following:
A while back, Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, pointed out something fascinating to me: If you type even a small fragment of your own work into Google, as few as seven words, with quotation marks around the fragment to force Google to only search on those words in that order, then you are likely to find that you are the only person on the Internet who has ever produced that exact combination of words. Obviously this doesn’t work with boilerplate like “GE rose four and a quarter points on stronger earnings”, or “I love dogs,” but in general, it’s surprisingly true.
I’ve tested this and it is true. With a lot of my posts, if I type in a non-generic line, the only site that comes up is mine. In fact, verbatim Google searches are a good way to find content scrapers and plagiarists.
Whenever I site anyone on the internet, I will link them, usually quote them and then, if necessary, summarize or rephrase the other points they are making. I try hard to avoid simply rewriting what they said like I’m a fifth grader turning in a book report. So when you hear someone using the excuse that similar ideas require similar phrasing, it’s largely baloney. If two passage of text are nearly identical, it’s very likely that one was copied from the other.
I’ve become more sensitive to plagiarism since I’ve become a victim over the last ten years. I’ve had content scraped, I’ve had my ideas presented as though they were someone else’s and I’ve had outright word-for-word copying (on a now defunct story site). It’s difficult to describe just how dirty being plagiarized makes you feel. I even shied away … at first … from making accusations because I was so embarrassed. Here’s what I wrote the first time it happened:
Plagiarism is not just stealing someone’s words. It is stealing their mind. It is a cruel violation. The hard work and original thought of one person is stolen by a second. The people who have lost their careers because of plagiarism have deserved everything they’ve gotten and I am now determined, more than ever, to make sure I quote people properly and always give credit where it’s due.
Plagiarists need to be called out. Words are the currency of writers and, for many, how they make their living. Plagiarizing someone is no different than stealing their car or cleaning out their bank account. In fact, I would argue that it’s a lot worse.