Is That Professor a Plagiarist?

image from rutgers.edu

Plagiarism is alive and well among America’s tenured faculty. Non-tenured too, for that matter. I’ve worked as an editor for academic authors in a variety of disciplines for 15 years, and from my perspective, the situation is getting worse. Not because the profs are all turning crooked, but because many of them are allowing laziness to trump rigor and because some, strangely, don’t seem to be schooled in what plagiarism is.

As a writing teacher, I have an ear for detecting “borrowed” words. Clues include a suspicious shift in voice, syntax that doesn’t fit the writer’s usual forms, and outright non sequiturs of the copy-and-paste variety. Indeed, it’s the copying and pasting in the age of the internet that helps to explain why plagiarism is cropping up more than ever. I still can’t help but be surprised, though, at how prevalent it is among people who are supposed to be the bastions of academic integrity and protocol: university professors.

To be fair, my encounters with plagiarism of the most nefarious sort have been rare. Only once have I worked with an academic who knowingly tried to pass someone else’s entire argument off as his own. And that situation was handled by folks above my pay grade at the time. What’s become rampant of late are, rather, smaller-scale shrug-the-shoulders sloppiness and just flat out ignorance about what counts as using someone else’s ideas, language, or both without proper acknowledgment. Here’s what I’ve seen, and how I’ve handled it.

Careless Omissions

These come in two varieties, both of which some people prefer to call “misuse of sources” rather than plagiarism. I don’t.

One involves chunks of text hastily regurgitated with the intention of adding attribution later. The problem is when later never comes. In some cases, the original is nearly identical in language, but some key data point has also been misreported so that the lack of acknowledgment is made worse by an inaccuracy (see my previous post “Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?”). Authors who make these kinds of errors sometimes apologize; others admit to the respected editor, “I knew you’d clean up after me.” In the latter scenario, I remind the author that if I can’t find the offense, I also can’t rectify it — so remember to give me enough of a tip so that I’m looking for a needle in a hairball, not a haystack.

The other kind of omission amounts to incomplete source attribution. I’m talking about quotations correctly ascribed to the person who uttered the words but without acknowledgment of where they appeared. For instance, I have encountered statements such as “As my colleague Jane Expert said, . . .” without any source mentioned, only to find that Ms. Expert made this comment in, say, a New York Times interview. I remind the author that crediting the speaker is not enough, as it leaves unclear how the quotation was obtained. I’ve even heard other editors say things like, “Oh, I assumed it came from an interview that the author had done with Ms. Expert.” Assume that, and you may be publishing a correction later.

Clueless Commissions

Much more disturbing than finding an academic to be careless about reporting his source material is facing the reality that he doesn’t understand the basics about attribution. One author who had lifted material from a somewhat older text actually said to me, “But that’s in the public domain now.” Um, Professor, just because a text is public doesn’t allow you to claim it as your own. (I’m paraphrasing myself, of course. The actual quotation was much more diplomatic.)

Far more common are instances in which the author thinks that if he changes a phrase or two, plagiarism has been avoided. “Is that what you teach your students?” I wonder to myself. Again, my actual approach is more practical. I simply propose an alternative that either includes appropriate attribution or avoids the need for the passage altogether. That works almost every time.

The Editor as Teacher

Diplomacy is, indeed, at the heart of all the efforts to help an author avoid embarrassment (or even a lawsuit) for having plagiarized, whether due to sloppiness or ignorance. What you say obviously depends on your relationship with the author. If you have an ongoing and strong professional bond, a mini-lesson on best practices in academic writing can actually be a welcome offering; if you don’t have that kind of trusting tie, suggesting intelligent alternative language usually does the trick. Occasionally, you’ll work with someone who bristles at the very thought that she plagiarized (even if you didn’t say that outright). Again, a deferential “Here’s what you could write instead to make your excellent point” often dilutes the defensiveness.

And, of course, there are cultural differences in what constitutes plagiarism. Don’t be afraid to take an information-sharing stance as you politely explain how an American audience might perceive a particular use of another author’s material as inappropriate. With academics from abroad who may be unfamiliar with U.S. standards, focus on the perceptions of prospective readers rather than the rectitude of your position. After all, the definition of plagiarism is, like that of any intellectual practice, culturally bound.

The Editor as Policeman?

As it becomes easier for authors to commit acts of plagiarism, it’s also getting easier to identify — and to prevent — instances of it. Even without a nifty plagiarism-spotting application, a keen ear and simple online searching will turn up much more than you might expect. Will you find it all? Certainly not. Should you even attempt to look down every alley to find evidence of crime? No way. Editors are not police officers, for good reason. You certainly don’t have the time to walk that beat, given how many other important duties are on your roster. Besides, editing with a crime-fighting mind-set comes through in your communication with the author.

As with any editing task, your radar must be on at all times, but you mustn’t spend all your time listening to it hum. That kind of self-consciousness gets in the way, as good editors well know. Mindfulness is an asset; compulsiveness is a liability. Vigilance about plagiarism is one line item on the balance sheet. Give it its increasingly important due, but don’t let it overwhelm the bottom line.

When the Author Has Nothing Worthwhile to Say

Having worked as an editor for a long time, I’ve plumbed pretty much all the depths of the author-editor relationship. Most of that mine, fortunately, is filled with gems, especially when you get to collaborate with people at the top of their disciplines. And when the raw material isn’t great, experience teaches you how to make it so. But, like everyone, I have an Achilles heel — one situation in which I simply don’t know how to find diamonds in the dirt. It’s when I face the self-deluded author whose content really and truly isn’t worth a damn.

Now I’m not talking about bad writing. I’ve plumbed that depth many times, and those situations are eminently rectifiable. Making good writing out of bad writing — and even good writers out of bad writers — is at the heart of what I do in my various roles as editor and teacher. I’m instead referring to the folks who, whatever their skills as writers, are selling snake oil without even realizing it.

For some authors, this foray into uselessness is a one-time journey: They’re digging in an empty hole on a mostly gem-filled landscape. If you have a good relationship with an author like that, you might even be able to state the truth plainly, thereby allowing him or her to save face in the end (you’ll be thanked for it, too). If you don’t know the one-time fool well, you might just have to enable the behavior, do your best with what’s in front of you, and console yourself with the knowledge that this author will get back to the worthwhile stuff soon. But maybe I’m just chicken that way.

For other authors, a whole career has been built upon the useless. At this point, I can spot chronic sterility a mile away, yet I still don’t know what to do about it. When possible, I’ve refused assignments by making up an excuse (“I’m booked” does just fine). However, such refusals aren’t always feasible, for a variety of reasons, and then I have to just grin and bear it — and release the grin the minute I turn my face away. But the whole time I work on material like this, I can feel my innards disintegrating. I can’t help but think about how everyone’s time is being wasted — mine, the publisher’s, the public’s, and actually the author’s, too, blind to it as he may be.

Many people I know in publishing say, “Who are you to judge what’s useless? You’re just the editor, not the expert.” Besides, what counts as substance is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. Call it my perception, call it reality, call it what you will. But working with an author whose entire career appears (to me) to be built upon promulgating poppycock is the one indignity I’ve never learned to suffer well. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath and let it go. But wasted time and wasted space, even on the limitless internet, is criminal to me, and I can’t help but feel like an accomplice.

Luckily, I don’t have to do this Ruth Madoff routine too often. But I still hate it, and I don’t how to escape it. If you do, please lend me a hand here. I’m numb from the digging.

How to Wield Your Lance Freely

I have too much reverence for the arts of editing and writing to subordinate them to the sterile science of pleasing clients. As a freelancer, I retain a tall wall between how I speak about money and deadlines with the people who hire me and how I approach and discuss the work they give me. The former I always do with a smile; the latter I do on the merits, letting the smiles (and the frowns) emerge organically. That’s the approach I valued when I was a full-time employee working with outside freelancers, so now I return the favor.

You see, I find good work and salesmanship to be fundamentally at odds. They don’t compete with each other on every single freelance job, of course, but allowing them to preoccupy me simultaneously runs the risk of such competition, and I won’t tolerate that possibility for even a minute. In short, I don’t feel very free (or effective) as a freelancer when I don’t have the room to wield my skills without the impediment of financial calculations. Here are the principles I follow to ensure that doing business doesn’t blunt my efforts at maintaining quality:

1. Treat the work as if it’s your own. That doesn’t mean applying your own tastes and preferences to the material — such an approach would be rude and useless. But within the basic parameters you’ve been given, don’t hold back from showing a client what it would take to make the work as good as it can possibly be, even if that means an overhaul. As a freelancer, I obviously don’t make the final decision about where things will go, but I never refrain from demonstrating where they could go. You may end up challenging an ego or two in the process, but so be it. If those egos are secure enough, they’ll thank you for it in the end; if they’re not, you’re better off looking elsewhere for work anyway.

2. Don’t confuse collegiality with politeness. Mutual respect between capable colleagues involves fully appreciating what each person brings to the table in an honest exchange, not tiptoeing around perceived sensitivities. Many freelancers, however, walk on eggshells, wearing a professional shoe on one foot and a salesman’s loafer on the other. That just makes you seem like the hired help rather than a capable complement to the internal staff. In the end, most clients would rather work with — and rehire — an equal than a lackey.

3. Make “process” part of your purview. Just because you’ve been hired to focus on content, don’t turn a blind eye to process. If you’re wondering why a client is following a seemingly impractical protocol, don’t hesitate to ask about it — and to offer a more efficient alternative. You obviously should make sure you understand the larger context before you suggest process changes, and you should never take a cowboy attitude. But any client worth her salt knows that a deficient process can diminish the quality of the product. Again, the clients worth keeping will respect high-quality feedback, even on process, if it’s offered collegially.

4. Be passionately dispassionate. Whether it comes to the process or the substance, recognize that truly respecting the art of what you do requires you not to have an artist’s temperament. Emotional overinvestment in what a client ultimately does with your work only undercuts your ability to influence the final result. If, instead, the client senses you are like a judge who is simply assessing the merits of the case, your analytical — and even your creative — judgments are more likely to prevail. In effect, you can make the work your own and still make the work larger than you.

The freedom of freelancing doesn’t just mean working for yourself. There’s also freedom to be found within each assignment you accept as you execute it with integrity. How do you manage to remain free as you freelance? My approach is only one of many.

Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?

In publishing circles today, there’s a premium on numbers. Editors, writers, and journalists often seek to crystallize or legitimize a story with an eye-popping statistic that will become the sound bite or “takeaway” of the piece. Yet most of these professionals have an aversion to examining the underlying data developed by expert authors or sources. Sometimes proudly asserting “I’m a word person,” they soil their hands with numbers just enough to make the story work but refuse to learn what the data really mean. In many cases, they don’t even bother to check the accuracy. No, I don’t have a statistic on this phenomenon to make you gasp. My evidence is anecdotal, but for those in publishing willing to be honest with themselves, I think it will ring true.

Sins of Omission

Consider a hypothetical example similar to many I’ve encountered. An expert author, knowing that it’s difficult to use argument and expertise alone to persuade readers nowadays, conducts “research” to prove his point. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, he interviews 25 people and asserts that 94% gave thus-and-such surprising answer to an important question. An observant editor asks the author whether he really means 92% (23 out of 25) or 96% (24 out of 25), given that 94% is not possible, and offers to look over the data for him. The author casually replies, “Let’s just go with 96%.” The editor never reviews the original data to check whether 96% — or any of the author’s other figures — are accurate.

Another author asserts that in a survey she conducted, half of respondents said they never do something that you’d expect they do every day — a “Wow!” for the reader. Unwilling to “open a can of worms” or “get bogged down in details” (phrases I hear often in these scenarios), the in-house editors don’t ask the author whether there’s any contradictory evidence in what the other 50% of respondents said. The findings from one half of the survey takers are presented as if they tell the whole story.

To be sure, you shouldn’t weigh down an article written for a non-expert audience with extraneous contextual data. It’s obviously appropriate to make judgment calls about how much information the reader actually needs. But if no one at the publisher does the basic background work of checking the legitimacy of the numbers, how can the quality of what the reader is getting be assured? A colleague once said to me, “We’re simply not qualified to interpret the data,” straightforward as the data in question were. Such excuses for omission are, in my experience, rarely viewed as a problem in publishing. But I’ve found them to be insidious and rampant.

Sins of Ignorance

Much more widely discussed are the sins of data ignorance, of which there are many varieties. Take, as one example, a news article that reports that a particular lifestyle behavior increases the risk for a disease by, say, 75% — a staggering figure at face value. A check of the actual research reveals that the number of people who get the disease is so small that a 75% increase amounts to just a few more cases. Readers mistakenly assume that huge numbers of people who engage in the behavior are at risk for the disease. It’s possible that this was a sin of omission (the journalist didn’t bother to check the original data), but if you talk to the people who report on these types of stories, you’ll more often find that they just didn’t know how to interpret the statistics in the research. Either way, the reader is ill served.

Then there’s the ignorance of how the data were developed. If, for instance, 65% of workers at a particular site were deemed to be “inadequately trained,” what precisely were the criteria for adequacy? And how was the evidence that a worker did or did not fulfill those criteria collected? That’s the type of information that readers really must have to understand the context, yet frequently even the editors never ask to see it, thereby guaranteeing that the readers won’t get access to it either.

The Devil in the Unverified Details

Publishers of many stripes have become intoxicated with the reporting of numbers, in part because consumers have shown that they have a taste for that elixir. The compelling, sometimes shocking statistic dances seductively in the headline, the subtitle, or the callout — and the reader succumbs to its charms. A number, potent and seemingly unassailable, is worth a thousand words. As long as readers and producers of content alike are addicted to the allure of statistics but simultaneously allergic to the task of understanding what’s behind them, the premium on a well-placed, poorly vetted percentage will remain very high indeed.

Are You a Specialist or a Generalist Editor?

Strict editorial boundaries have never really suited me. I’ve been a writer, a developmental editor, and a copy editor, and in all three roles I can’t help but wear all three hats. When I work with a piece of writing, whether or not the byline is mine, I allow every editorial detail to enter my brain simultaneously. That unfiltered receptivity, though it may seem indiscriminate, enhances the value of each decision I make, large or small. If I censor myself, even temporarily, something vital gets lost, and I end up treating the piece as if it’s a machine being assembled rather than an organic creature being nourished.

The advantage of discrete editorial roles is, of course, that each specialist in the process has the space to focus on her assigned job without distraction and is empowered to make judgment calls in the area she knows best. But what also tends to happen is that individual specialists cater, sometimes without realizing it, to separate internal constituencies instead of a common, external audience. To be sure, specialist expertise can be essential to an editorial endeavor, and the need for it must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If, however, the default arrangement is that every editorial role is specialized, it can be very hard to work out all the kinks and truly unify the final product.

I often wonder whether more editors should instead behave as generalists, simultaneously attending to the forest, the trees, and everything else in the editorial ecosystem as they produce, shape, and refine the whole — while bringing a writer’s sensibility to bear at every twist and turn. That doesn’t mean I long for a world without editorial collaboration, where one person does it all. I firmly believe that nearly anything worth publishing is best produced through collective effort, and I consider the basic need for both a writer and an editor to be fundamental. But I prefer to collaborate with people who can operate expertly and without inhibition in all domains at once yet who appreciate the value of a second — and a third — set of equally unencumbered eyes and ears.

My sense, though, is that I’m an outlier in that regard, and that to most people in editorial arenas the advantages of specialization far outweigh the drawbacks. If you’re a writer, an editor, or both, where do you come down on the specialist/generalist question? I’m all eyes and ears.

When Editors Are Used by Their Editorial Tools

Even the fussiest, text-driven editor has to admit that the boom in interactive, infographic, and other visually engaging content has greatly enhanced the value of what publishers of all stripes are now able to offer readers. “How can we show what we say?” is a question that publishing professionals now routinely ask themselves as they develop material. That’s a good thing, for the most part.

But with the allure of what’s possible comes the illusion of what’s necessary. Many editors, intoxicated by the power of new tools and techniques, have begun to assume that visually arresting presentation adds value by default. Got information to share? Create an infographic. An interactive feature worked here; let’s use it over there. The availability of the medium starts, in effect, to drive — rather than to serve — the content.

Witness “Infographic of the Day,” a feature on Fast Company’s website that I was amused, but also disturbed, to come upon last year. The title says it all: We’re creating an infographic every 24 hours, come hell or high water. Quite a few of my editorial colleagues got all jazzed by this initiative, like they were rooting for the local sports team’s new rookie.

One of these daily infographics that made folks swoon was called “McDonald’s Heat Wave,” a U.S. map in which points of light were used to visualize the distance to the nearest McDonald’s from any given location in the lower 48 states. The result was an eye-catching image of, for lack of a better term, “Big Mac density” in the U.S. It looked cool and kind of made you go, “Wow, dude, you really can’t get away from Mickey D’s east of the Mississippi or on the west coast.” But then I quickly realized that if I put this sparkly thing next to a simple population-density map, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between McDonald’s density and pop density. And if there were a difference, where was the comparison population infographic to prove it? In short, if something new could be learned from the map, the map makers hadn’t bothered to teach it. But, hey, it was an infographic — a picture worth a thousand … no, a million — maybe a billion … served. I mean, words. Are you swooning yet?

You see the phenomenon on TV, too. CNN developed a truly excellent, interactive, wall-size U.S. map, deftly manhandled by John King during the 2008 election season. But then the so-called “magic wall” started being employed, in an enlarged form, for every two-bit display of information that the network could force into it. We viewers lapped it up once, maybe we’ll keep licking our chops every time the thing gets used. The tasteless CNN news editors now seem to pay little mind to whether the tool actually helps to illuminate the substance of a given story. The magic plaything entertains the kiddies, so go ahead and crack the lid of that toy chest again. And again. And again.

So does this unrelenting blitz of the at once brilliant and banal mean we should pout and whimper as we pine for the editorial substance of yesteryear? Of course not. Besides, yesteryear had its own overused dazzlers, even if they weren’t quite as glitzy. Today’s have the power to do much more, though, and in the hands of folks with sound editorial judgment they really can turn good content into great content. But it’s incumbent upon editors and publishers — and everyone in the chain who works for them — not to allow themselves to follow “hell or high water” dictums about when and how the new tricks of the trade should be used. If tools drive your material, haven’t you, in effect, become the tool?

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