Plagiarism in a Digital Age

Rochelle Terman
August 22, 2012
Image of Fareed Zakaria.

As an employee of the Townsend Center, I am expected to write a blog post for the Townsend Humanities Lab at regular intervals. Like other bloggers and columnists, I take inspiration from current events and trends to use in my posts. This week I decided to write about plagiarism and the Web following several highly publicized scandals in the journalism world. Because I am not an expert in plagiarism or journalism (or really anything) I conducted research for this blog by consulting other bloggers, journalists, and experts. I did this mainly by scanning the web – I am a millennial after all – through internet searches and web browsing, and found several articles that I thought had interesting insights into the cases of Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria. After reading a good number of pieces, letting them marinate in my consciousness, and fantasizing a debate between them, I sat down to write my own blog post. Like most of my blog posts, this one on plagiarism and the Web will be part creative collage, part annotated bibliography, part musing opinion.

Truth be told, few readers are coming to this blog because they are interested in what I, Rochelle Terman, have to say. Rather, I am offering a service: aggregating pieces of content and putting them in conversation with one another so as to offer a one-stop convenience in the labyrinth of the Web. While my name stands on the byline, everything in this blog was borrowed from someone before, albeit in transmuted form and juxtaposed together to create a nominally original piece.
 

Am I plagiarizing? I hope not, otherwise I would probably lose my job. But as the columnist David Carr points out, the difference “all comes down to execution.”

 

Consider what got several high-profile writers into hot water: CNN host and Time editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria was recently suspended from both jobs after the blog Newsbusters discovered that he lifted chunks for his Time column from a recent New Yorker article written by Jill Lepore. While the passages were not taken verbatim (you can see a side-by-side comparison here), it was obvious that Zakaria – or one of his research assistants – presented Ms. Lepore’s words and research as his own, and was subjected to an investigation by both Time and CNN. (After apologizing, Zakaria was reinstated when both employers concluded that his infraction was an isolated incident.)

 

Just a few days earlier, author and columnist Jonah Lehreh resigned from the New Yorker and had his latest book, Imagine, pulled from the shelves after it was discovered that he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan. This was not the first time Lehreh came up against accusations of journalistic transgressions; he was previously accused of self-plagiarism, misleading readers with sloppy fact-checking, and generally cutting corners with his writing.

 
Why did these instances occur? The acute cause appears to be simple laziness. Zakaria could have avoided this mess with a few citations, properly attributing the passage in question to its rightful owner, Ms. Lepore. Lehreh, on the other hand, could have simply found another way to make his point without making up quotes. (With all of the words written or uttered by Dylan, was it really necessary to fabricate?)
 
But beyond sloth, it is worth pondering the deeper forces behind such easily-avoidable transgressions, especially as academics, for whom plagiarism and fabrication stand as the ultimate sins of our profession.
 
Several writers point to Zakaria and Lehreh’s jam-packed schedules, arguing that, in an age of 24-hour news cycles, oodles of columns, and millions of blogs, the pressure on media darlings to stay relevant might entice them into the lair of laziness. As Carr puts it: “the Web’s ferocious appetite for content — you are only as visible as your last post, as Clay Shirky recently said to me — probably had something to do with why Mr. Lehrer tried to feed the beast with retreads and half-baked work.”
 
Zakaria, too, wears many proverbial hats; he works for CNN, writes columns for Time and the Post, writes books, and gets paid for many speaking engagements. To expect fresh intellectual insights in all of these platforms is unrealistic at best, if not partly responsible for entrapping ambitious writers into corner-cutting in order to built and maintain their “brand.” And this seems to be the ultimate “lesson” that Zakaria learns. In an interview with the New York Times, the overworked writer says: “There’s got to be some stripping down” of his nonstop schedule.
 

Other journalists are not nearly as sympathetic to this “overworked” excuse. Steven Brill, for one, writes: “CNN and Time should explain why [Zakaria’s] being forgiven and what he's doing to cut down on his workload and multiple payrolls. More than that, reporters should press CNN and Time on why even one commission of what, along with fabrication, is journalism's most basic breach of trust gets a pass.”

 
Surely the Web deserves some blame (credit?) for putting the pressure on established publishers to produce more and more content. Now that anyone with a smartphone can be a writer, editor, or documentarian, traditional media houses must work harder to maintain their market share. Some (like Brill) do this by referring to their own solid reputations as news authorities, claiming the high ground of journalistic integrity. Others take the strategy of luring readings through economics of scale.
 
But if the Web has transformed journalism and writing into an all-out frenzy for content, then certainly this new competitive furvor should not degrade quality control; rather it should intensify it. After all, it was the “self-cleaning tendencies of the Web” (a phrase Carr used) that deserved credit for unearthing the misconduct in the first place. Perhaps the observation that current journalism is sliding down the quality slope is really just a reflection of the more obscure trend in which more journalistic infractions are getting noticed. Writers are just as good (or bad) as they ever were; only now more of them are getting caught.
 
New technology always seems to offer novel opportunities for rule-breaking. Wikipedia, file-sharing, and billions of webpages broke new paths for plagiarism in the classroom, for instance. But technology, while first utilized by the deviant, is quickly added to the arsenal of quality enforcement. Instructors now google fishy passages of their students’ papers.
 

In the writing world, the Web can adapt to the rampant copying and accreditation chaos. As blogger Mathew Ingram noted, these recent cases of plagiarism demonstrate the power or, and could have been avoided by, the most basic of internet tools -- methodical linking. Box.net CEO Aaron Levie might have nailed it when he tweeted: “Plagiarism is just really inefficient hyperlinking.”