A flurry of emails and heartfelt apologies later, I feel pressed to add some additional commentary on a piece I published on Wednesday, which suggested that the Globe & Mail was recycling material from its sources on the topic of income inequality without full use of quotation marks. The original version of the piece could be read as indirectly proposing that this might be seen as plagiarism. It has been pointed out to me that it would be both unfair and, frankly, rude to level any such accusation without asking for comment from the accused first. Although asking for comment is really more of a mainstream media practice than an online blog practice, I will certainly accept the complaint. I wholeheartedly apologize to the Globe and to the reporter who produced the article in question, Tavia Grant.
Now, I would like to explain my reasoning behind the post so that readers can understand what happened. If we take the responses to the Margaret Wente “scandal” last year as a guideline, what we are actually dealing with here are very different expectations of what constitutes full and proper attribution. The rules differ between different professions, so different expectations aren’t terribly surprising. What you learned as the definition of plagiarism in university, for instance, may or may not apply as rigidly outside of the Ivory Tower. (Which you could pretty much say about everything you learned at university, I suppose.)
The University of Toronto defines plagiarism as the “publication as one’s own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas… of another.” Basically there are three forms of academic plagiarism, in declining order of severity. First, you can take someone else’s words and reproduce them as your own, without quoting them and without citing them — meaning you’re taking both their ideas, and the expression of their ideas. Second, you can take someone else’s words but cite their source — meaning you’ve taken the expression of their ideas, but have cited the origins of the ideas themselves. Third, you can refer to someone else’s ideas without citing them and without taking their words. The first is obvious plagiarism in any discipline. The third is only plagiarism in the strictest technical sense; even in the university, I don’t imagine it would lead to anything more than a mild reproof that you’re being “unoriginal.” Then there’s the question of intent, which separates something that arguably creates an appearance of plagiarism from something that really is a conscious attempt to steal material and lie to the reader. The second of these is a grave sin in any writing-related profession, and it is not my intention to say that something like this is occurring.
The uncertainty exists in cases where you cite your source, but then you use their words, or very near to their words, without using quotation marks. When is it okay to substantially reproduce someone else’s words without using quotation marks? In the university, basically, never. Concordia University’s plagiarism statement makes this clear for university students:Tweet