An experiment

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Let's try a little (thought) experiment in verbal short-term memory. First, find a friend. Then, find a reasonably complex sentence about 45 words long, expressing a cogent and interesting point about an important issue — say this one from a story in today's New York Times: "But the billions in new proposed American aid, officials acknowledge, could free other money for Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, at a time when Pakistani officials have expressed concern that their nuclear program is facing a budget crunch for the first time, worsened by the global economic downturn."

Now call your friend up on the phone, and have a discussion about the topic of the article. In the course of this conversation, slip in a verbatim performance of the selected sentence. Then ask your friend to write an essay on the topic of the discussion. (OK, this is a thought experiment, right?)

How likely is it that the selected sentence will find its way, word for word, into your friend's essay?

Actually, there's a prior question, which is whether your friend will have stopped the conversation to ask why you're suddenly talking in such a writerly way. Anyhow, keeping all this in mind, read the follow three brief passages. First, one from Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo on 5/14/2009:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Now, another from Maureen Dowd's 5/17/2009 NYT column:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

(You'll note that the two sentences are exactly the same, except for the substitution of "the Bush crowd was" for "we were")

Finally, an email from Dowd, 5/17/2009 (apparently sent both to nytpicker and the Huffington Post?):

I didn't read his blog last week, and didn't have any idea he had made that point until you informed me just now. i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column. but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me.

As a college professor, I've heard many excuses for plagiarism over the years, but I don't believe that I've ever heard one quite that lame.

Back in 1987, when Dowd had just been assigned to the NYT's Washington bureau, she made a name for herself by pursuing Joe Biden over his borrowing of rhetorical tropes and short phrases from other politicians. The key story was "Biden's Debate Finale: An Echo From Abroad,"  9/12/1987, which pointed out the following connection (quoted from Dowd's story):

(Neil Kinnock) "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?" Then pointing to his wife in the audience, he continued: "Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?"

(Joe Biden) "I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?" he said. Then, pointing to his wife, he continued: "Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright?"

In a later story ("Biden Is Facing Growing Debate On His Speeches", Dowd cited some additional cases of unoriginality, for example this one:

At the Democratic National Convention in 1976, Mr. Humphrey, then a Senator from Minnesota, declared: "The ultimate moral test of any government is the manner in which it treats three groups of its citizens: first, those who are in the dawn of life, our children; second, those who are in the shadows of life, our sick, our needy, our handicapped, and those, third, in the twilight of life, our elderly."

Senator Biden's version offered "a nation noble enough to treat those at the dawn of life with love, those at the dusk of life with care and those who live in the shadow of life with compassion."

In that story, Dowd also introduced the P-word, though placing it in the mouth of an anonymous hostile source:

Members of rival Democratic camps, who did not want to be quoted by name, said the question of Senator Biden's appropriating passages from another's speeches was a legitimate campaign issue. "The suggestion that the issue is who uncovered the plagiarism is a red herring," said one such staff member. "The core of Joe Biden's credibility is that he is a self-proclaimed and unique visionary orator. It's like finding out General Haig never served in the Army."

Here and now, Dowd and/or the NYT editorial staff moved quickly this morning to lance the boil. If you check out the on-line version of MoDo's 5/17/2009 column, "Cheney, Master of Pain",  you'll find that the relevant sentence now reads:

Josh Marshall said in his blog: “More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.”

And at the bottom, there's this note:

Correction: May 18, 2009
Maureen Dowd’s column on Sunday, about torture, failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Points Memo.

[Facts and links from "NY Times' Maureen Dowd Plagiarizes TPM's Josh Marshall",  TPMCafe, 5/17/2009.]

[Update: Choire at The Awl argues that "I mean, 'talking to' clearly means 'emailing with.'", and "A bunch of non-writers who comment on blogs will denounce Dowd because she steals from her friends. They are ridiculous, because everyone steals from their friends, or else how would you get through the day?".

The trouble with this theory is that "wanted to weave the idea into my column" is a funny way to describe inserting a 43-word sentence essentially verbatim.]

[Update #2: Tucker Carlson says:

[T]he whole thing is an interesting window into how her column is created. I knew someone once who was on her call rotation. Every week, she'd call and collect amusing lines from him, which she'd invariably use without attribution. Every writer does this to some extent — I've made a lot of money over the years stealing from my conversations with Matt Labash — but she seems to do it more than most.

He seems to be saying that Dowd routinely has people on her "call rotation" dictate material to her over the phone, which she writes down verbatim — punctuation included? — and then uses in her columns without attribution. This is the most bizarre explanation yet. So it might really be true. ]

[Update #3: A response from a NYT spokesperson, according to Michael Calderone at, appears to agree with Choire's "everyone steals from their friends" theory:

Journalists often use feeds from other staff journalists, free-lancers, stringers, a whole range of people. And from friends.

This is a typically journalistic use of "feeds", I think, as in newsfeeds, defined by the OED as "A service by which news and other frequently updated information is provided on a regular or continuous basis, often for onward distribution or broadcasting by media organizations, Internet service providers, etc.", the metaphor being that there are these pipes of raw materials pouring into troughs in the press room, which the reporters and editors combine into the tasty dishes they serve to the public. Again, I've never had an undergraduate refer to uncredited sources as "feeds", but it's something to look forward to.]


  1. kip said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    So, by Dowd's own account, she was plagiarizing her friend and not Marshall. Great explanation!

    Seriously, why can't people just own up and say "oops" every now and then? It looks to me like she had copied and pasted that paragraph into her article and forgot to go back and add attribution to it, like she did in the preceding paragraph. I would doubt (and maybe I'm too optimistic here) that such a seasoned journalist would so blatantly plagiarize someone intentionally.

  2. Mr Punch said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    Probably right. What makes the thought experiment a bit uncertain is that the friend you call is a very successful journalist who may well be exceptionally good at getting quotations down pat.

    [(myl) Actually, Ms. Dowd has a history of misquotation, also blamed on friends. And all the evidence, I'm afraid, is that being even moderately good at "getting quotations down pat" is not a requirement for being a successful journalist these days, see e.g. "'Quotations' with a Word Error Rate of 40-60% and more", 7/30/2005; "Approximate quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times", 8/27/2005; or "This time it matters", 8/13/2005.]

    I could do a thought experiment in which I throw a 98 mph fastball, but it does make a difference whom I'm pitching to.

    [(myl) No, this should be a "thought experiment", not a "fantasy". Those are different.]

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 9:33 am

    kip: So, by Dowd's own account, she was plagiarizing her friend and not Marshall. Great explanation!

    Yes — this is right up there with "I paid that guy for an original term paper, and now you tell me that he copied it off the web? Damn."

    kip: Seriously, why can't people just own up and say "oops" every now and then?

    Perhaps the truth — "I meant to rewrite it and forgot", or "I thought my assistant wrote it" — was perceived as embarrassing, and an all-around appropriate excuse — like your "forgot to go back and add attribution" — didn't come to mind quickly enough.

    [Note that there was a minor scandal last year, when a Dowd column datelined Derry NH seemed to offer an eyewitness account of Hillary Clinton's NH victory party, though Dowd was in Jerusalem at the time, and the quotes and descriptions apparently were the work of an assistant. So it's clear that others sometimes contribute material to her columns, and that would be a plausible way for 40-odd sure-to-be-recognized words to end up passed off as her own writing.]

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Interesting that Stanley Fish's blog in this morning's New York Times

    uses the slippery concept of "authorship" (scare quotes) to further obfuscate the ongoing faith-vs.-reason bun-fight in his blog. Where will it all end?

    [(myl) I like his line "[T]he so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called 'individual' originates." For some reason, no undergraduate caught copying long passages without attribution has ever tried that excuse out on me. It would be refreshing, though probably not effective.

    I note in passing that although Prof. Fish is on record as opposing the view that texts have meanings, he apparently believes that they are (or at least might be) "transversed" by them. Cute.

    And even cuter because he didn't write, as I first thought, traversed (i.e. "run across or through; crossed"), but rather wrote transversed ("turned upside down or backwards; overturned; converted into something different; transformed"). ]

  5. language hat said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    This is disappointing. While I often find Dowd annoying in her cutesy/jokesy mode, I basically like her, and I like her a lot less now. The original plagiarism is explainable in any number of ways that could be easily covered by an "oops" apology, but to expect us to believe that crap is insulting.

  6. Bloix said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    My guess is that ML is correct when he hypothesizes about the assistant. I suspect that Dowd doesn't write her own columns – at least not the first drafts – so she genuinely doesn't have a clue how this sentence made its way into her column. I think this is generally the way that high profile plagiarism happens (the Stephen Ambrose/Doris Kearns Goodwin kind). For these characters, it's less embarrassing to give an obviously false explanation than it is to admit that you don't write your own material.

  7. Mike Scanlon said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    I have a question, one I'm not prepared to spend the time researching, but one that I think is pertinent to the subject of "The Language Log". Is the phrasing and syntax used by Dowd generally so close to that used by Marshall that such a cut and paste could go undetected? The structure of the sentence seems very individual.

    The Kinock and Biden comparison is apt. There is a similarity of idea, I would guess a sharing rather than a copying, which each expresses in his own idiom. I say a sharing because the "why am I first" question is pretty universal, certainly received from the culture by both men, and the dawn, shadow, twilight metaphor is also too conventional for it to be attributed as original to Kinock. Language and culture are shared things, but an original wordsmith usually has his own style and phrasing.

    [(myl) Are you asking whether this sentence stands out as stylistically un-Dowdish, or as stereotypically Marshallese? Dowd's style is generally direct, punchy, alliterative, etc., in ways that this sentence isn't, but we don't need to resort to stylometry to determine that she didn't write it.

    There are several other differences between this case and the Biden flap. Biden paraphrased Kinnock, whereas Dowd copied Marshall's words exactly. Also, politicians are expected to employ speechwriters (and ghostwriters for books and articles), though these hired writers are expected to be original (see "Plagiarism and restrictions on delegated agency", 10/1/2008, for a discussion of this curious point of ethics). Students are definitely not allowed to hire others to write for them, even if the writing is otherwise original; academics in general have similar ethics, although interns, researchers and other assistants are often ambiguously in the picture. I'm not sure what rules apply to journalists, but I presume that a columnist would find it embarrassing to discuss the contributions of an assistant, much less a ghostwriter. Some high-profile columnists certainly have assistants — at least, I've been contacted several times by people claiming to be serving in that capacity. ]

  8. Mark P said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    Do you really think Maureen Dowd doesn't write her own columns? I wonder if she has her own opinions.

    As to the original point, I don't think "oops" would quite cover it. Dowd is a professional writer, and plagiarism is among the worst of sins for a professional writer.

    [(myl) Well, there's the post-modern idea that "the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought", as (Dan Lufkin noted above that) Stanley Fish explained at length in yesterday's NYT. But even if we remain shackled by the chains of Enlightenment individualist rationality, it's more complicated than that.

    Successful professional writers — including journalists — often (perhaps even usually) have interns, researchers, and assistants of other kinds, whose contributions sometimes (perhaps even often) include passages that are incorporated verbatim into their final product. And then there are editors, who may re-write extensively, without getting any authorship credit.

    I agree that "plagiarism is [regarded as] among the worst of sins for a professional writer", but it would be naive to be shocked by the discovery that a published piece by Thomas Friedman — or Maureen Dowd — included a sentence that actually was written by an assistant or an editor. So it's probably true that Dowd doesn't entirely write her own columns, independent of anyone's philosophical qualms about the concept of authorship. ]

  9. Alan Gunn said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Dowd's story is the kind of explanation that makes no sense, but can't be disproved. So it does the job, which is leaving the matter as a "controversy," rather than "the Dowd plagiarism scandal." MYL's analysis reminds me of the financial analyst who figured out that Bernard Madoff was running a fraud because it was extraordinarily unlikely that what he claimed to be doing could have produced his results. The guy went to the SEC, which is staffed by lawyers, and they said, essentially, "since you have no witnesses, there's no case." Madoff went on for several more years. Dowd will, too.

  10. MattF said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    The big problem I see here is that it's unlikely that this is the first and only time that Dowd has come up with a wildly implausible explanation for misbehavior. It's much more likely that we're only seeing one example of something she does repeatedly. Regardless, it's not a good sign.

  11. Mo MoDo said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    She cribs from bloggers all the time but is usually circumspect to quote or at least blind attribute (e.g. Bloggers say…) I say never attribute to malice what can explained by incompetence.

    [(myl) The unattributed quote was just a slip, for which many valid excuses are plausible — "it's that intern's fault", for example. But the excuse offered in the (alleged) email was lame enough to be blogworthy. ]

  12. KMcC said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Hang on – Kinnock said 1000 generations? That's what, 20,000 years?

    Even for that famously flatulent orator, that's a superbly meaningless number to be getting worked up about.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    @KmcC: note that Biden was smart enough not to borrow the "1000 generations" part of Kinnock's language. I thought (then & now) that it was the parallelism in the ancestors-playing-football-after-coming-up-from-a-long-shift-in-the-coalmines parallel between Kinnock and Biden that was the more damning, although the cumulative effect made the first-generation-to-go-to-college parallelism much much harder to explain away.

    I wonder if the technical ease of cutting and pasting leads to a higher incidence of verbatim copying like this. In the old days even if you had the source being cribbed from open in front of you you would still need to write out or type out the portion you were borrowing one word at a time, which would make it perhaps easier to vary the phrasing a bit as you were going along, and/or put the borrowed language in quotation marks or something else that made clear you were disclaiming original authorship.

  14. Mark P said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    I know that certain well-known columnists have assistants, who are in at least a few cases well known on their own. I only infrequently see Dowd's columns, but I assumed hers was more of an opinion column than an investigative one. So I perhaps naively pictured her as the sole author of her columns. Still, if she does have assistants and some of their copy ended up verbatim in the column under her name, I can see that it would be embarrassing to have to explain plagiarism by saying she didn't really write it.

  15. sonya said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    What a lovely little blog entry, i think i might use it to warn students of the naughtiness of plagiarism. One commentator has already called the sentence "individual", but I was struck by its ugliness, before I even grasped this was going to be about plagiarising! Is the timeline really raising the question more and more? A grating start to an overall clumsily structured sentence [so it seems to this non-linguist non-native speaker, she hastens to add].

  16. Mark F. said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    Even though Biden paraphrased, there are a number of things that made it especially embarrassing for him. He went out of his way to particularize it to himself, with the "I started thinking as I was coming over here" bit, I understand he was distorting his own family history in doing so.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    with the "I started thinking as I was coming over here" bit,

    The younger Churchill was overheard practising in his room his next day's speech to the Commons. "I had no intention of rising to speak here today…"

  18. Ben F. said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    It appears Humphrey himself cribbed the "society will be judged" line Biden was slammed for stealing. A quick google search reveals some difficulty in pinning down the attribution, which includes such luminaries as Ghandi and Churchill.

  19. Chris said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    Artlessness is a demanding art.

    Incidentally, why do some Americans apparently think that someone is *more* credible on an issue they only started thinking about yesterday? Especially one of obvious public importance that has been around forever? Do countries without America's tradition of anti-intellectualism also have this bizarre preference for snap judgments over consideration?

  20. Mark F. said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    Chris – Biden wasn't trying to give the impression that he had only started thinking about the issue that day. He wanted it to sound like he had just, on his own, come up with a particularly vivid illustration of something he had been caring about for a long time.

  21. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    note that Biden was smart enough not to borrow the "1000 generations" part of Kinnock's language.

    Actually that happened too. The article linked to above continues Biden's quotation with the following rhetorical question: "Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?"

  22. Plagiarism Derangement Syndrome « Is there no sin in it? said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    […] Mark Liberman, Dave Noon, Brad DeLong, and Scott Lemieux all have interesting, thoughtful responses to Maureen Dowd's plagiarism of Josh Marshall. Her response to this situation, as they all note, is quite obviously mendacious, based as it seems to be on a wildly improbable series of events in which a "friend" suggested an idea for her column that she didn't realize was from another source until she was found to have included a 44-word string verbatim, with a tiny stylistic substitution in the middle, from Josh Marshall's blog. […]

  23. dr pepper said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    As i recall, Biden had in fact attributed the "why am i the first" bit in other speeches, but on this occassion, he was pressed for time.

  24. Andrew said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

    dr pepper: Yes, I have heard this, but it puzzles me. How could he attribute a statement that was supposed to be about himself? Surely it loses its point if it is ascribed to someone else?

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    @Stephen Carlson: Thanks for the correction on the "thousand generations". This does make it worse because it's such an obvious borrowing, because in turn it's such a weird thing to say. An American of Biden's generation who was, say, the fifth generation of his family to go to college (example: George W. Bush, if wikipedia can be trusted) was quite statistically unusual, and somewhat likely to be from a "posh" background that Biden could contrast his own with, yet would still have had 995 collegeless generations before that.

  26. bianca steele said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Is it just me, or does this sentence from Michael Calderone's Politico post:

    There is no need to do anything further since there is no allegation, hint or anything else from Marshall that this was anything but an error.

    and in fact the rest of the paragraph it begins, read oddly–almost as if the Times would not be surprised to find Josh Marshall had committed the error and even for further clarification to reveal Marshall was guilty of some really serious fault? How could Marshall possibly "hint" or "allege" what Maureen Dowd was thinking when she submitted the piece?

  27. The Volokh Conspiracy said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    Maureen Dowd's Copying of Josh Marshall's Sentence:…

    Check out Prof. Mark Liberman take on this at Language Log….

  28. Seth Finkelstein said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    I think the "call rotation" and "feeds" refer to the idea that these columns are more like comedy routines (!) where portions can be contributed by hired writers or staffers who are generally not credited. As in "Maureen, here's a line you can use in your act this Sunday …". Of course these are supposed to be original, so she's saying her friend misled her.

  29. The Blogger Ethics Panel Will Meet At 1:30 PM, Monday « Around The Sphere said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    […] Mark Liberman at Language Log Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)New Monday BlogNew Media Symposium Speakers Finalized! […]

  30. Kenny Easwaran said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    I assume the Choire and Carlson points are basically right – the "call rotation" is at least partly an e-mail rotation, and there's a lot of copy and pasting from the e-mails. Further, no one wants attribution in Dowd's column, because it would be almost as embarrassing to be known as the source of Dowd's columns as it would be to get caught plagiarizing.

  31. Rick S said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

    I wonder…If I were on Dowd's "call rotation", and had been annoyed to have my pithy words "woven into her column" without attribution one too many times, how might I go about creating a honey pot to embarass her? Might I quote Josh Marshall and neglect to mention that I was doing so? What delicious irony!

  32. David Nieporent said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

    With regard to Biden, the problem is that his plagiarism was obvious, even paraphrased slightly, because his comments were true as applied to Kinnock's family, but not to Biden's; Biden wasn't the first in his family to go to college. And Biden didn't come from a family of coal miners.

    [(myl) On the other hand, Biden never said anything about coming from a family of coal miners, in any report that I've seen. I don't know the facts about his ancestors' educational attainments, but given your apparent careless fib about the "family of coal miners", I'm going to assume that you don't know anything about it either, pending a link to some documentation.

    (Update: David Greenberg in Slate (8/25/2008) asserts that

    But the even greater sin was to borrow biographical facts from Kinnock that, although true about Kinnock, didn't apply to Biden. Unlike Kinnock, Biden wasn't the first person in his family history to attend college, as he asserted; nor were his ancestors coal miners, as he claimed when he used Kinnock's words. Once exposed, Biden's campaign team managed to come up with a great-grandfather who had been a mining engineer, but he hardly fit the candidate's description of one who "would come up [from the mines] after 12 hours and play football."

    I'd still like to hear a recording or see a transcript, so as to be sure of what Biden actually said, as opposed to what someone says someone says he said, but I owe you an apology, especially because the same accusation was in one of Dowd's 1987 articles that I linked to.)]

  33. Bayes’ Rule « Cheap Talk said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

    […] case you haven't guessed, the question is rhetorical and the article (from LanguageLog, a great blog) is referring to Maureen Dowd's plagiarism.  It is a fallacy […]

  34. Tracy W said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 4:35 am

    Dowd is a professional writer, and plagiarism is among the worst of sins for a professional writer.


    I don't get the fuss about plagarism. Yes, it's nice to attribute to other people's work. But "among the worst of sins"? How about getting names and dates totally wrong? How about attributing quotes to someone who didn't actually say them in the first place? Or cutting quotes so as to say something very different from what the person actually meant? How about writing articles that are self-contradictory in themselves? All those strike me as far worse sins than plagarism.

    Dowd should have attributed the quote, but to call plagarism among the worse of sins implies a remarkably low weight to be placed on accurate reporting of what's actually happened (for non-fiction writers, for fiction writers I suspect we all have our own personal list of sins, I'd far rather read someone who plagarised, like Shakespeare, than an author who writes self-pitying characters who go on for pages and pages about how sorry they feel for themselves).

  35. Aaron Davies said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    Dowd is sufficiently well-known for deliberate quote-mangling that her name has now been adopted as a verb. Dowdify: to eliminate or alter the meaning of a quotation through selective editing.

  36. Mark P said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    Tracy W, as I said in a comment after the one you quote, I assume that Dowd's column is more opinion than investigation. Opinion writers in particular are paid for their viewpoint, style and originality of expression. If you refer to reporting or investigative columns, then yes, accuracy and truthfulness are required, but style and originality are not so important.

    On the other hand, the fact that plagiarism is among the worst sins of a writer doesn't mean there are no other sins, maybe even some that are worse than plagiarism.

  37. bianca steele said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    Rick S,
    There's a system these things fit into. The people journalists quote are putting their stuff out there in the knowledge they will be printed. It's a symbiotic relationship; they are using the journalists as much as, or more than, the journalists are using them. They want what they say to get "out there" one way or another and the journalists are just helping them out. The rules regarding plagiarism are designed to protect everyone involved.

    Academics have their own set of rules, which is similar but not exactly the same. I've been aware for some time that there's some academic discomfort out there for how people talk about their areas of interest on the Internet (along with some Internet confusion about what's essentially being objected to). I suppose academics might have some objections to journalist rules, where they differ from their own, also.

  38. EconTech » Did Maureen Down Plagiarize? said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    […] no defender of the NYT, and I stopped reading Dowd years ago. Brad Delong seems to think (and he is not alone) the case is open and shut, and it mostly is.  I just want to point out her defense is not quite […]

  39. Tracy W said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    Mark P, I agree that opinion writers are paid for their viewpoint, style and originality of expression. But their viewpoint should I think bear some relationship to reality. I mean, it's one thing to have a strong view that differs from mine about politics and to write articles furthering your view. It's another thing to do so dishonestly, by say falsely attributing quotes, or by making up facts to support your opinion, or by deliberately changing your line of argument to pick whichever arguments make your opponents look bad on a particular topic, even if that requires contradicting yourself (I am speaking here of a deliberate choice, as opposed to normal human forgetfulness or confused thinking). If an opinion writer made up some quotes and falsely attributed them to you in pursuit of putting their viewpoint and they made you look like a total idiot, would you be relaxed about it just because the opinion writer's writing was stylish and original?

    All these to me are far worse sins for a non-fiction writer, be they an opinion writer or an investigative journalist, than plagarism.

    And if you do think that there are worse sins than plagarism, then what did you mean when you wrote that "plagarism is among the worst of sins…"? "Worst" is a pretty strong word. I don't think that plagarism of this sort – of a sentence or so – is a particularly bad sin in the overall scheme of evil things that writers can do. If Maureen Dowd stole everything she wrote from some other writer then her reputation would have a false base, and while I regard this as a lesser sin than say deliberate and drastic false quoting, I think it would be bad. But how many people are going to decide that Maureen Dowd is a great writer based on merely 40 words? Or hire her rather than Josh Marshall based on that sentence?

  40. Grep Agni said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    For a completely different take on this, see this post at the Booman Tribune.

  41. wally said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    My first reaction when I read this yesterday was, why do I, as a naive outsider, care about this? I get the impression that if she had done as I did in elementary school when I copied information from the encyclopedia, and changed the words around and reworded some things, it would all be fine. Its not about plagiarism at some high level, copying in some way a whole article, which might be of interest, but about one sentence that reflects something she heard somewhere else. And again, so?

    And I agree with Tracy W in that this is far from the worst thing columnist can do. To me this all smacks of "nyah, nyah, we caught you".

    But in rereading things this morning I realized that I think the whole premise of this post is flawed. The sample sentences that MYL gives is very different than the Josh Marshall sentence. It is hard to even read the sentence on Pakistan, let alone imagine coming up with it again. The Josh Marshall sentence is very smooth and flows very well. It says what is says simply and clearly. It is easy to imagine hearing it once and then coming up with it later oneself.

    This is all a gut feeling, and the folks on this list may have the tools to quantify this, I sure don't. But I think the examples contradict the ostensible point of the post. Indeed some sentences are so "right" that they could easily be reproduced exactly. And giving an awkward sentence as a counterexample does not show anything.

    And btw, I would expect opinion columnists to be in the Zeitgeist and to get parts of their thoughts from a multitude of places, and I would not expect, or even want, an attribution to all of them. Tho in this case, when it was pointed out that the sentences were very close, it was right to add the attribution.

  42. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 10:56 am

    "A bunch of non-writers who comment on blogs will denounce Dowd because she steals from her friends. They are ridiculous, because everyone steals from their friends, or else how would you get through the day?"

    As a professional writer who comments on blogs, how about by doing some work?

    "Journalists often use feeds from other staff journalists, free-lancers, stringers, a whole range of people. And from friends."

    If he means "feeds" as in story leads, then sure. If he means feeds as in actual text, then no we don't.

  43. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 10:56 am

    Also: there’s a world of difference between using unattributed reporting from a stringer – itself a highly dishonourable practice, though alas moderately common at national newspapers – and copying text into an opinion column. If Josh’s prose is more felicitous than anything Dowd can come up with herself, maybe the NYT should be employing him instead.

  44. Mark P said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    Ginger Yellow – exactly! As I have tried to say, one of the reasons a columnist is hired is for his or her specific way of saying things.

  45. Peter Seibel said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    Ginger Yellow — well there's a certain amount of reuse of text that goes on, or there was during my very brief time as a newspaper reporter. For instance if a paper is a member of the AP, then the AP is free, as I understand it, to pick up any text from that paper's reporting.

    I discovered this when an AP story about a storm contained man-on-the-street quotes that *I* had obtained for our paper. The rest of the story was different than the one that ran in our paper but the quotes were lifted and reused with no indication that they hadn't been obtained by the AP writer who wrote the AP story.

  46. bianca steele said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Also, while it's true that I at least read opinion columnists in part for their personality and interesting opinions, as has been said, they do have assistants, and Dowd's explanation really is not incompatible with the error's having been her assistant's. What she described could have been what her assistant actually did, reattributed to avoid embarrassing him or her. It seems to me people in that position, besides probably being very young, would be able to slide under the radar a disproportionate amount of the time–because they make mistakes everybody knows someone with the experience of Maureen Dowd would not make. I don't think we'll ever know what happened.

  47. donna said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    I think they should just give Dowd's column space to Marshall. At least then it would be worth reading.

  48. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    I am now very confused, because myl says (contra David Nieporont) that "Biden never said anything about coming from a family of coal miners, in any report that I've seen" but the old 9/12/87 Dowd NYT story he linked to in the original post quotes Biden as referring to "My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours." Is this a subtle way of telling us we shouldn't believe Biden ever actually said this if our only source is Maureen Dowd?

    [(myl) No, it's an unsubtle indication that I was in a rush and missed the coal-mining reference in that column. At least I linked to it, thus subverting my own argument! I'm still not clear what Biden's ancestors actually did where; but if none of them were coal miners, and Dowd quotes him more or less accurately, then he's on the hook for lying about a simple matter of fact — which would be much more serious and shocking than borrowing a rhetorical gesture from a British pol. I gather than his great-grandfather was a mining engineer, who perhaps therefore did work in the mines, though not shoveling coal. ]

  49. bianca steele said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    Chapter 15 of the Germond/Witcover book on the 1988 campaign (Whose Bright Stripes and Bright Stars) appears to be a thorough, reported account of the incident, including how it became a scandal. (Their general argument IIRC is that "the character issue" was trivializing politics, as was "gotcha" campaigning.) They say "there may have been a mining engineer" in Biden's ancestry, so presumably either they found no confirming evidence or someone actually contradicted Biden's statement.

  50. johnshade said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    Here are a couple more links on Biden, with lots of quotes. My take is that he was attempting, not to pass Kinnock's words off as his own, which would have been plagiarism, but rather to pass himself off as Kinnock, which was more like psychosis:

  51. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    "I discovered this when an AP story about a storm contained man-on-the-street quotes that *I* had obtained for our paper. The rest of the story was different than the one that ran in our paper but the quotes were lifted and reused with no indication that they hadn't been obtained by the AP writer who wrote the AP story."

    Sure, and I can definitely understand being miffed that your legwork went without credit, but it's totally different from lifting actual copy. Quotes, once published, are effectively in the public domain. They said what they said, and anyone can say they said what they said. Also, agencies operate in a weird space, editorially speaking. I don't particularly like the ethics of it, but there are established rules around how they use other people's copy and vice versa.

  52. fev said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

    The AP doesn't operate in a "weird space." It's a co-op. It moves a rewrite of your tornado story (with your quotes) on the state wire because that's one of the things members get. Should one of your colleagues miss a deadline (God forbid), the news editor can plug the hole with the AP's rewrite of some other town's disaster (with somebody else's quotes), and the machine keeps rolling.

    Very different from what the AP statehouse or Washn staff does, and worlds different from what a columnist like Dowd does.

  53. John Cowan said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 2:40 am

    This is the same AP (disclaimer: former employer) who sued their INS rivals back in 1918 for moving verbatim AP copy that had been posted on a public bulletin board (the cork kind, with thumbtacks). Of course, now "pickup stories" are a delicate dance. "According to alleged reports on what is said to be today, a newspaper calling itself (correctly or fraudulently) the Wall Street Journal is said to have printed the following…."

  54. Tracy W said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 7:02 am

    Mark P, and Ginger Yellow, if Maureen Dowd had written something like "As Josh Marshall so brilliantly said …." and included the exact quote, she would have copied text just as much and been just as unoriginal, but she wouldn't have been committing plagarism (add in more citation details if necessary to avoid your definition of plagarism). If your problem is with unoriginality and copying work, then I don't see how this supports the idea that plagarism of this sort of copying sentences is among the worst of sins a writer can commit. Citations don't have to be original or stylish to avoid accusations of plagarism, they just have to be there.

    Again, I will state that building your reputation on stealing another author's work wholesale is a very different and far more serious level of plagarism.

  55. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    Well I wasn't the one who said it was among the worst sins. It's one that tends to annoy other journalists a lot, for obvious reasons, but it doesn't affect readers quite so much. Offhand, fabricating quotes, malicious libel and knowingly printing falsehoods are worse sins in my book.

    And I don't think anybody's saying Dowd's malfeasance is particularly bad on the scale of plagiarism. It's more that her excuse compounded the initial sin. But, even so, her column (or the end of it) was both unoriginal and plagiarised, so her critics seem to have all angles covered.

  56. Mark P said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    I'll try this one more time. For someone who makes a living as a reporter, lack of originality is not considered a sin, or at least not one worth worry about. If it were, about 90 percent of reporters would be headed straight to hell. On the other hand, people who make their living by writing opinion pieces are paid for their own views of the world. They are more like fiction writers in that regard. Plagiarism is offensive in this context because it undermines the basis of the writer's worth: his or her own view expressed in their own words. it also undermines the writer's reputation; plagiarism is not honest. I agree that this case is not particularly serious, and it's certainly not unforgivable. But it's an indicator.

  57. Senhal said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    I'm no fan of Stanley Fish, but there's nothing 'cute' about his use of 'transversed'; the OED says ('transverse, v. 1'):

    1. trans. To pass or lie athwart or across; to cross, traverse. rare….
    Hence transversed ppl. a., placed crosswise, crossing, transverse.

    [(myl) All of the verbal uses are rare enough not to make it into M-W Collegiate, the American Heritage Dictionary, or Encarta, all of which have transverse only as an adjective or noun. Frankly, I think that Fish slipped (in a minor way) and substituted transverse for the verb traverse, which is a fairly common word that appears to be what he meant.

    My reference to OED sense 2. of transverse v2 "To turn upside down or backwards; to overturn, turn topsy-turvy" and 2.b. "To convert into something different; to alter, transform" was just a little joke, riffing on Fish's post-modernist aversion to the idea that language has meaning.]

  58. Terry Collmann said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 5:05 am

    On the subject of using direct quotes lifted from someone else's news story and inserted into your own, any good reporter would (I hope) be very wary of doing this without making it clear that the words were said to someone else, using such phraseology as "Joe Bloggs was quoted in the Albuquerque Telegraph as saying …", because if Joe Bloggs later denies saying anything, you're absolutely stuffed if you've pretended it was said to you. I'm very surprised, therefore, that AP would lift direct quotes without saying what the intermediary source of those quotes was.

  59. Ken Grabach said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    Apart from the issue of plagiarized statements (of obvious interest to the academic community, whether students, educators, or librarians), is the complexity of the sentences, with more than one dependent clause modifying other clauses in the sentence. I was focused on this point, and had this thought. I grow rather weary of the frequency, even in the NYT, of single sentence paragraphs. If the dependent clauses had been formed into separate complete sentences, they would have become easier to read and understand. They could have also made paragraphs of more than one sentence! Maybe it would have been easier to avoid the plague of plagiarism.

  60. Mikee said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    I find it amusing that a writer who has a journalistic term of derision named for her, (Dowdifying, changing the meaning of a quote by selective removal of words), is being criticized for unattributed quotes. She already has zero credibility as a journalist and zero credibility as a pundit, what more can she do to debase herself? Can she move into negative credibility somehow, by faking quotes that she then does not attribute, but rewrites to change the meaning of?

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