Don’t Blame the Tools — People Plagiarize Copy!

    by Scott Rosenberg
    February 19, 2010

    Two high-profile cases of plagiarism made recent headlines — one at the New York Times, one at the Daily Beast. In each case, the plagiarist expressed confusion and surprise when confronted with the evidence, and in each case, he blamed the speed of Internet-era reporting and the cut-and-paste tools that make lifting someone else’s words so easy.

    I think we all need to remember that, “Every plagiarist says it was accidental.”

    Those aren’t my words. That’s why I put them in quotes and linked to the place where Steve Buttry said them. When I first read Buttry’s words I copied them, along with his name and the URL, to my notes. I was never tempted to claim them as my own, nor was I for even a second confused about their provenance. To be sure, the idea isn’t unique to Buttry, but the exact wording is his, and should be credited.


    Since I first sat down to write at a newsroom computer in 1984, I’ve been producing copy exclusively on screen. Cut-and-paste is an essential tool of my work. Without the speed and ease of digital editing, I don’t know how I would have kept up my pre-Internet output of four or five 800- to 1200-word pieces a week. When I moved to the web in 1995, the pace only increased. Still, every word I produced was either my own or attributed to someone else.

    That’s just a given for a self-respecting journalist. I say it without pride, the way I might say, “I breathe air.”

    Stop Blaming the Tools

    When I hear the now-perennial “I must have gotten my words confused with other people’s” excuse for plagiarism, I can’t help thinking: Really? Are your own words so generic that you can’t tell them apart from someone else’s?


    It is not hard to train yourself, as you take notes, to distinguish who said what. You do it when you interview people; you do it when you copy text from other sources. In order to write for public consumption you should be able to meet this minimum standard of self-organization.

    It is time we stopped letting plagiarists blame their tools. Imagine it’s the dawn of the typewriter era, and your garden-variety plagiarist is making his plea: It was just too easy to retype someone else’s words. And once they were in type, well, I couldn’t tell whose words they were! Typed words all look the same!

    Sure, computers and the web accelerate things. For the scrupulous writer, they make it easier to work scrupulously; they also streamline the bad work of the unethical or the careless. But they do not change anything fundamental about plagiarism. They do not explain, let alone excuse, the dishonesty of claiming someone else’s words as your own.

    Tagged: daily beast new york times plagiarism

    4 responses to “Don’t Blame the Tools — People Plagiarize Copy!”

    1. Kouwe claim was particularly irritating because he noted that in producing 8,000 words a week, he might have gotten sloppy.

      Now, Scott, I don’t know how prolific you are, but I write vastly more than 8,000 words a week for publication, and I have never accidentally inserted unattributed words into a story.

      I probably spend less than 10 percent of my reporting and writing time on the phone, however, and he may have spent 80 percent of his talking to sources to write the breaking news.

      But still. Any full-time newspaper journalist produces thousands of words a week under deadlines, and any independent writer (like a blogger) probably much more.

    2. Win says:

      I’m a writer and admit that I have an incredible unintended memory for written passages. Whole sentences and paragraphs sprint to my mind that often really ARE other people’s. When I have the slightest doubt, I google chunks of the phraseology, to make sure I haven’t accidentally done some instant memorization that lies unattributed in my brain. And sometimes I find – Yes – I DID read that TIME magazine article or that academic paper. And then I attribute. I go the extra mile and expect other people to do the same so my own work is not stolen.

    3. I actually was able to confront someone who claimed he owned the copyright of a lab manual I wrote (work for hire, actually owned by our employer) for sale to students in his classes.

      At first he said that he was too busy to take care of doing things properly, then he said it was a mistake. I still believe his “mistake” was not thinking that a student might show it to anyone who would bring it to the attention of our department chairman.

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