Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Plagiarism is a Mistake? Really?

When Holly and I meet with parents and make suggestions about how to engage in conversations with young people about digital ethics, we often suggest they use current events in the media to spark great discussions. Here's a wonderful (exasperating) example...

In the last two days, I've read and listened to news reports about two different incidents of plagiarism. You may have heard about Fareed Zakaria, an editor at large at Time Magazine and a host on CNN, who on Friday, August 10th, admitted to plagiarizing passages from a New Yorker article. What a profound disappointment. Plagiarism really yanks my chain.  It might be due to my inherent need to follow every rule, and my frustration with those who don't. Or it could be because I recognize how difficult it is to write well and how easy it is to steal the work of others in the digital age. Either way, it's wrong. But what really hit a nerve this week was the way Mr. Zakaria and author Quentin Rowan "apologized."

Mr. Rowan, author of the book Assassin of Secrets, was outed as a plagiarist after the book was published last November. I listened to an interview with Mr. Rowan on American Public Media's The Story yesterday and he drove me absolutely nutty. He was being interviewed because a memoir, based on his experience plagiarizing, has recently been published. He blamed his plagiarism primarily on the pressure to write well.  I'll also mention here that Mr. Rowan had been plagiarizing almost everything he'd published for the past 15 years.

In the interview, it is suggested that some of the frustration directed towards Mr Rowan is due to the publication of his new memoir...about his life as a plagiarist. Mr. Rowan seemed more concerned about whether or not his future publications would generate as much interest or that his writing would be discussed based on it's own merit, and not his history of plagiarism. He also dances around his apology calling his actions a mistake, misguided or due to being "wrong headed." He says he was wrong, but his tone suggests that he thinks we should all just move on and not take it quite so seriously.

In Mr. Zakaria's apology in the New York Times, he states that, "They are right. I made a terrible mistake." Really? It was a mistake? A mistake feels accidental to me. Like when I forgot a decimal point on a utility payment and overpaid by almost $3,000 (thank you Tacoma Public Utilities for helping me fix my mistake, and not least not while I was on the phone). Plagiarism, especially in the way that Mr. Zakaria and Mr. Rowan practiced it, isn't accidental. It took effort. Mr. Rowan even describes the hard work it took to steal in order to refute a claim that plagiarists are lazy.

Comparisons to paragraphs in Mr. Zakaria's column and those from Jill Lepore's New Yorker article show the slight, but numerous, changes made to the plagiarized portions. It's not accidental. It is premeditated. You have to do it deliberately. Saying it was a mistake seriously lessens the gravity of the action.

Students who plagiarize face consequences, just like Mr. Zakaria and Mr. Rowan, whose experiences will certainly be examples for discussion when I talk about plagiarism in the middle school this fall.  Are there legal consequences for plagiarism? Not really. Mr. Rowan had to pay back the advance from his publisher. Mr. Zakaria might lose his job, or at least some income. Can Ms. Lepore sue for theft of property? Nope, but I wish she could.

The digital world has made the act of plagiarism much easier, but it doesn't lessen the offense.