We Need to Talk About Plagiarism

27 Sep
Image by ▲Bonard▼, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by ▲Bonard▼, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

We need to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because it exists, and to paraphrase a film critic friend of mine: “It seems like there’s a new plagiarism scandal in journalism every month.”

He’s right, it does feel like that, and from recent examples like Lianne ‘The Queen of Cut and Paste’ Spiderbaby, to Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard from WhatCulture! it feels like the journalism industry has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

As a journalist, all you have is your integrity, and once that’s gone, you have nothing. You are only ever as good as your last article, you will only ever be as good as the best article that you have ever written. Plagiarism never benefits anyone because once the plagiarism is uncovered – and it will be uncovered – then the writer and their publication will lose credibility and respect.

What shocks me is when people try to stick up for the plagiariser; although nine times out of ten, these are usually fans of the writer, who don’t work within the industry, but there have been exceptions. Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, made a very premature statement supporting Spiderbaby when her plagiarism was discovered, which he was then forced to retract when it became clear that she had in fact, plagiarised the articles that she’d written for him too.

It’s odd that when a plagiarism scandal erupts, that many editors will stand by the plagiariser despite proof of their wrongdoing. For example, in 2011, Simon Kelner, then editor of The Independent, stood by Johann Hari after evidence of plagiarism and other questionable behaviour was brought to light. Instead of being sacked, Hari was suspended and sent for ‘retraining’ in the US. He handed back his Orwell Prize, made an “evasive” public apology, but didn’t personally apologise to the writers that he had stolen from.

During his suspension, Hari decided not to return to the paper, and while both Hari and Kelner have since left The Independent, The paper’s reputation was badly damaged, just as Hari’s reputation was severely damaged by his plagiarism. So, despite Kelner standing by Hari, it was all for nothing; everyone came off badly because of his plagiarism and their failure to deal with it properly.

Obviously, an editor must support their staff, but when a staff member has plagiarised someone else’s work, then they must also protect their publication. So, why then, do some editors reveal their loyalty to a plagiariser, when a plagiariser, by definition, is incapable of thinking of anyone but themselves? In the case of WhatCulture! their initial reaction was to continue as normal by not commenting on the accusations, and continuing to publish work by both the writers in question.

A few days later, and after significant pressure, they broke their silence, saying:

WhatCulture! Initial Statement

WhatCulture! Initial Statement

Although the editors may have thought that by acknowledging the scandal, they were then dealing with it, these tweets only created more questions. What processes? What disciplinary procedures? What steps had been put in place? By not being transparent and open about what exactly they were doing, WhatCulture! were complicit in their silence; it looked like they were supporting the plagiarisers on their team over basic journalistic integrity.

Unsurprisingly, no one felt that this was good enough, and not long after, WhatCulture! released an official statement on the scandal. They apologised profusely, not just to the writers whose work was stolen, but tellingly, they also apologised to the plagiarisers for putting them under too much pressure. Additionally, the offered compensation to all the writers who had been ripped off. It was a long time coming, and while the editors were initially slow to act, they did claw back some respect.

There are two very positive lessons that we can take from these recent plagiarism scandals. The first is that for every plagiariser, there is someone, somewhere who is willing to put the time and effort to research their output and find examples of plagiarism. So, for every Lianne Spiderbaby, there is Mike White, and for every Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard, there is Maxwell Yezpitelok, Simon Columb and Ali Gray, willing to blow the whistle, to hold critics to account and to reveal the extent of every bad journalist’s unethical practices.

The second lesson is that each time this happens, each time someone is caught plagiarising, the net tightens just a little bit more. People get angrier, editors get more wary and publications continue to crack down on this immoral and unethical behaviour. Exposing plagiarism in all its forms, whether it is uncovered in art, design, photography, film, music, journalism, poetry and academia forces us to confront it head on. It makes representatives of all these industries start to think about how they can make their respective disciplines better and more trustworthy.

In the case of journalism, the industry is under enough threat from outside forces for it to be destroyed by a series of bad journalists. As a collective we are already dealing with their being not enough jobs, little money, a lack of job security and cuts. Take a look at the new arts section from the Independent On Sunday, where it was decided that sacking all their arts critics – each of them well-respected writers with years of experience – was preferable to publishing ‘reviews’ like this.

Clearly, this attitude isn’t good enough, and when editors and publications fail to properly deal with plagiarists, it not only undermines our industry; it damns us all. Inaction will be the death of arts journalism; not online content, not a lack of advertising, but apathy. Our apathy will kill the industry.

Publishing bad writers with poor ethics and an even worse attitude is not a good idea, and editors and publishers must stand up to these people. Their inaction condones the writer’s behaviour and ensures that they will get away with it time and time again. It’s time to make a stand, to send a message to say that plagiarism will not, and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

It’s time to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because we can’t keep letting this happen in journalism.

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10 Responses to “We Need to Talk About Plagiarism”

  1. Owen Garth September 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Honestly I never really thought about plagiarism outside of college, but even then I knew my mediocre effort was better than getting busted copying someone else’s better one.

    I’m guessing there is a lot more going on than we know about, and just the most blatant or egregious examples are brought to light.

    • trashtaylor September 28, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

      You know, it’s funny, people seem to understand that you shouldn’t plagiarise in school/college/university etc, but they are still willing to plagiarise elsewhere.

      When I was in my final year at university, I worked as a sub editor for the university’s paper. We had a girl submit a fashion piece (I think it was about Goth fashion being ‘in’ that year) But there was something not quite right about the article.

      So the editor asked her about it so she could check her sources, etc, and the writer replied, “Oh, I just copied it out of Cosmo!”

      She had taken an article published in Cosmopolitan and copied it word for word, yet saw NO ISSUE with this. I had to rewrite the article, and we never used her again.

      Listen up kids, if plagiarism is the wrong thing to do in school, what makes you think it’s the right thing to do out in the big bad world?

  2. ladygrey November 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    Not sure WhatCulture have clawed back my respect. Shaun Munro and TJ Barnard were never dismissed, only suspended. They are still listed as editors on the WhatCulture website, and their extensive backlog of articles remains intact, save for the articles stolen from Cracked (that we know about).

    This wasn’t so much a case of WhatCulture realising and admitting they were in the wrong, but the editors buckling under pressure from all corners. They only retreated because they were caught out – even after the plagiarism was brought to their attention, their response was to continue business as usual, publishing further articles from the perpetrators swiped from Cracked and stating that the matter had been dealt with.

    This also suggests they might well have known about the theft all along – at least, their response endorsed Shaun Munro and TJ Barnard’s actions (who were surely in cahoots – and if so, how many more knew? These guys were editors, after all). It was only once Sr. Mxy compiled a detailed blog post with evidence of their thefts that they published the “apology”.

    The apology itself is superficial – it’s not linked to the homepage, and it’s not the writers themselves apologising. The money offered in damages is a meagre $50 – which in no way covers the loss in writers’ earnings for those affected, or the reputational damage incurred (as they were the ones that ended up looking liked the plagiarists).

    Judging by the experiences of other writers, such as Ali Gray (http://www.theshiznit.co.uk/feature/stop-the-online-film-blogging-community-i-want-to-get-off.php) and Paul Martinovic (http://www.killthegiggler.com/2012/02/27/getting-used-to-feeling-worthless-freelance-writing-for-free/), WhatCulture has a history of shoddy business practices and a dirty reputation in the industry.

    So, no, I’m not sure this case is a victory over plagiarism and ill treatment of writers. WhatCulture is still a blatant rip-off of Cracked that privileges poorly written, clickbaity articles, and continues to profit from aspirational volunteers.

    But thanks for writing this – it’s so important to highlight these issues.

    • trashtaylor November 29, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

      They haven’t clawed back my respect either, mostly because I didn’t consider them to be a good site to begin with.

      While I’ve never had any kind of contact with them or the writers in question, and I believe you’re right about them bucking under pressure and fearing yet more ‘Bad PR’, they did react somewhat better than say, Lianne Spiderbaby, The Dark Side and Carly Fallon, who all attempted to sweep their blatant plagiarism under the carpet.

      So, yes, WhatCulture have a terrible reputation, which is why I never read them, and have never wanted to write for them. And there are far too many young and innocent writers willing to work for free, but I think this is the start of a victory, and hopefully the beginning of new attitudes towards writers and copyright.

      Glad you enjoyed the piece, I think we need to be really open about these issues in order to move on and improve the industry for all.

      • ladygrey December 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

        Haha, fair point. And I hope that your optimism is vindicated, I really do. One of the reasons why I would advise especial caution regarding WhatCulture in particular is that I’m not sure they’ve changed their spots. I wrote some articles for them recently; when I learned of their shocking reputation, and found they were continuing to mislead writers, I promptly had them taken down.

        I do think they will think twice about approving plagiarised content again, but in other ways they’re still gypping writers if they can get away with it, while many of the editor’s communications to me have been unprofessional and insulting. I’ve written a blog post about my recent experiences if you’re interested.

        I love the photos and topics featured on your blog, btw. 🙂

      • trashtaylor December 4, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

        I hope my optimism is validated too!

        Sorry to hear of your experience with WhatCulture – can you send me the blog post? I’d really like to read it.

        I’m glad you like the blog!

      • trashtaylor December 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

        “The trial period is for life..”

        “The trial period is for life…”

        I am disgusted, what a horrendous attitude. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience, and I’m even more sorry that WhatCulture still exists.

      • ladygrey December 4, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

        I know! And that was just one of several choice idiotic quotes he had the arrogance to put into email-form. I’m shocked they’re still going after everything they’ve been called out on. Nothing short of a drastic management reboot can save this toxic company. Thanks for reading, anyway, and for your support. 🙂

      • trashtaylor December 4, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

        No problem – keep in touch!

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