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:
When you are using someone else’s exact words, you need to place quotations marks (“. . .”) around the words. You also need to be careful not to rephrase or reorganize the words; otherwise you would be guilty of misrepresenting the author… It is not acceptable to take the original phrasing and to rearrange a few of the original words in order to produce a paraphrase; neither is it acceptable to use the same sentence structure but just rephrase a few key words.
What about the media? Here it’s a little fuzzier. There are many in the profession who argue that as long as you cite your source, and as long as the reproduction of words is limited, it’s not plagiarism. Indeed, in the Wente scandal last fall, one reporter — at a rival paper — even argued that it would be improper to apply university-style plagiarism standards to journalism at all. The problem gets worse because you have a profession, albeit an unregulated one, trying to debate for itself what plagiarism means in the context of the news, even as outsiders, like me, chime in with what we think it ought to mean.
And so we arrive at a point like the following. The following are a pair of quotes. The first comes from a UBC economics paper. The second comes from a Globe & Mail report, which has cited the UBC paper and is listing what it refers to as “the findings from the study,” but which, in this case, has not made use of any quotation marks to indicate that the words in question come from its source:
UBC paper: “One needs an annual income of at least $230,000 to be part of the top 1 percent. The average income for people in the top 1 percent is $450,000, compared to only $36,000 for the whole Canadian population.”
Globe & Mail: “One needs an annual income of at least $230,000 to be part of the top 1 per cent. The average income in this group is $450,000, compared to only $36,000 for the whole Canadian population.”
Now, first of all, it’s important to recognize that none of this actually involves a charge of plagiarism, because a charge of plagiarism implies that the plagiarism was intentional on the part of an author who wants to mislead the reader. Other possibilities include accidents, laziness, a different set of rules about when to use quotation marks, etc, etc. That’s especially true in the case of a busy newsroom, where harried and overworked reporters have many more projects on their desk than there is time in the day. It’s quite clear that there was no intention here to claim that the Globe & Mail’s newsroom had personally gone out and worked their way through the census and tax data and done the calculations. No, that part is explicitly attributed to the authors of the paper.
But does it create the appearance of plagiarism with respect to the words themselves? That’s where the question of the rules of the profession come into play. Maybe, maybe not. Under the Concordia University rules, it definitely does: it’s the use of words from a source without quotation marks. But under professional journalism rules, though, I gather it’s not so clear. One possibility is that under commonly accepted journalistic rules of practice, as long as you explicitly cite your source and say you’re summarizing their work, you don’t always have to use quotation marks. Even that’s not a hard and fast rule, though: the same fact box I took this quote from does use quotation marks for some of the other material.
In the future, I will be more cautious about my wording, because while I think we would all agree that ripping off material without attribution and presenting it as your own is clear-cut plagiarism, evidently we do not all agree on sometimes using substantive passages and citing them but not quoting them. And everyone is entitled to their own opinion on this. My opinion plus a loonie will get you a coffee at Tim Horton’s.
Still, to see what I mean when I speculate that this sort of invisible quotation mark is common in the media and not an aberration only of some renegade at the Globe, witness, as Exhibit B, how CP reported on another recent StatsCan report, this one on household spending:
“Statistics Canada says the country’s households spent an average of $55,151 on goods and services in 2011, up 2.7 per cent from 2010. The increase was slightly below the rate of inflation of 2.9 per cent as measured by the consumer price index.”
I guess the author felt that quotation marks were unnecessary because he had substantially rewritten the first two sentences of the StatsCan report:
Canadian households spent an average of $55,151 on goods and services in 2011, up 2.7% from 2010. This was slightly below the rate of inflation of 2.9% as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
That’s some fine work, there.Tweet