Sunday, November 18, 2007

IPBiz challenges Noel Sheppard on quote lifting and the Merrill matter

In a post about the Merrill matter titled Was Former Journalism Professor Fired for Plagiarism or Sexism?, Noel Sheppard writes:

However, a former student of Merrill's, Matthew M. Reavy, who is now an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Scranton, believes the plagiarism in question was way overstated. In a Thursday column entitled "If Merrill is Guilty of Plagiarism, is Ted Rall as Well?," Reavy pointed out how commonplace his former professor's supposed transgressions are in the industry:

Unfortunately, Merrill is being vilified for doing what is a matter of routine for many columnists, using a quote already in the public domain without noting where that quote came from.

Take nationally syndicated columnist Ted Rall, for example. He leads his Nov. 5 column with a quote:

"The fact that a lot of people dislike you is troubling," says the director of the Quinnipiac University poll, talking about Hillary Clinton (D-Carpetbagger, Slept Her Way Into National Prominence, NY).

Where did that quote come from? Did Rall pull it from a press release? Did he interview the poll director personally? No. In fact, the quote was taken from an Oct. 31 article in the Connecticut Post. Here's the quote as it appears in the cached version of the article:

"She has very high unfavorable numbers and that is a concern. The fact that a lot of people dislike you is troubling," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

When contacted by e-mail, Rall readily acknowledged getting the quote from the Post, noting that "it is commonly accepted practice to quote from newspaper articles and other outlets in opinion columns."

As to Merrill, Rall said, "If things are as you say, his critics are ignorant of the norms of opinion writing. Taking quotes from media accounts occurs in every day's New York Times Op/Ed page."

Reavy went on to address how "quote lifting" in opinion pieces is rather common and not considered plagiarism by most in the field: (...)

Apart from the question of whether copying quotes from a publication without attribution to the publication is appropriate, one notes thata writer ought to at least verify the quotes are accurate.

Years ago, Chemical & Engineering News completely fabricated a quote by LBE in the area of buckminsterfullerene. Months after, a "correction" of sorts was issued. HOWEVER, years later, people were still "quoting" LBE on the basis of the initial C&E News fabrication. [See for example Buckminsterfullerene, Chemistry & Industry, p. 814 (Oct. 16, 1995).] If one is going to "lift quotes" from a third party article, one ought to verify with the quoted person that the quote is accurate. In the verification process, the plagiarism issue vanishes.

"Quote lifting" in the absence of quote verification should be considered to be bad journalism AND to be plagiarism. If journalists don't understand that, there is a problem. [In passing, though, IPBiz agrees that the "punishment" was not commensurate with the "crime," and that this matter might better have been handled differently. Still, the episode has highlighted issues about "quote lifting" which should be discussed.]

As an alternative, consider a quote done by LBE of Walter Cronkite .

In an article titled Foreseeing A Not Obvious Future in Intellectual Property Today (Sept. 2004, page 34), LBE used the text:

In 1952, a UNIVAC computer (with tubes) was used to accurately predict the landslide victory for Eisenhower over Stevenson, but Walter Cronkite, the election anchor for CBS, postponed discussing the results because he did not believe they were accurate.

Cronkite later stated: "But I don't think that we felt the computer would become
predominant in our coverage in any way." The first set of computer predictions
gave an electoral vote of 438 for Eisenhower and 93 for Stevenson. The
official count was 442 for Eisenhower and 89 for Stevenson.

Prior to submitting the article to IPT, LBE emailed Walter Cronkite to verify the accuracy of the quote and received a response from a spokesperson for Walter Cronkite that the quote was accurate.

"Quote lifting" can create urban legends, as in the attribution to Everett Dirksen about "a billion here, a billion there." Dirksen never said it, but allowed the quote-lifting to continue because he thought it was a good line.

[As an aside, one wonders what happened to computer-based election predictions when the Eagleton poll completely miscalled the result of New Jersey's stem cell bond vote on November 6, 2007.]

Pertinent IPBiz posts:


Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

Another article showing why Sheppard is wrong is that by Daryl Moen, Jacqui Banaszynzski, Dr. Charles N. Davis, George P. Kennedy titled:
Missouri Professors: Merrill's Offense Was Plagiarism

The article explores the "verification" issue that appears in the IPBiz post:

Clark used to agree with that standard. In the March 1983 issue of Washington Journalism Review he wrote: “Even today reporters loot and pillage other newspapers and magazines, using quotations and information without attribution or verification.”


Besides, what assurance does a column writer -- or a reporter -- have that the “original” material is accurate or was obtained professionally or is, indeed, original? Should we teach our students to bank their bylines or their mastheads on a guess? Should we send them into a tumultuous world with an iffy notion of ethics?

Moen et al. reach a definite conclusion: We stand firm on the former: the use of material gathered by another writer, without crediting that writer, is plagiarism.

8:59 PM  

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