Plagiarism, Writers and Conscience

[ NOTE: Discussion of Catholic Fiction at InsideCatholic.com]

* * PLAGIARISM

I have received several emails from readers ( in the few weeks that Properly Scared has been up) asking if I knew that a Canadian editor was fired due to his plagiarized work, including material from one of my articles.

Yes, I know of Robert Sibley’s confession–after he was tagged for multiple instances of plagiarism. The editor and board member of the Ottawa Citizen wrote:

Finally, on Nov. 12, 2000, I included a 23-word sentence in the second part of my nine-part series on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage that should have been attributed to an article entitled “Pilgrimage to the Stars” by Mary Jo Anderson that appeared in the February 2000 edition of the Catholic magazine, Crisis. Her sentence reads: “As the pilgrims streamed across Europe, converging on the ‘Road of Stars,’ they exchanged ideas about architecture, fashion, ballads, politics, food and philosophy.” I wrote: “As the pilgrims trekked across Europe, converging on the Road of Stars, they exchanged ideas about architecture, fashion, science, politics, food and philosophy.”

While I did not personally receive an apology from Mr. Sibley, I am happy to report that he did apologize to the professional community and his readers:

“My errors may have been, in part at least, the consequence of gathering or trying to impart too much information; to be sure, I like to think my essays, columns and editorials bring to the reader’s attention ideas that can help them better understand the world. Nevertheless, while I was not intentionally trying to appropriate the words or ideas of others as my own, I must acknowledge my failures in attribution. And it is for this that I wholeheartedly apologize — to the authors whose words I used, to my colleagues and, most particularly, to Citizen readers, who have every right to expect better of me.”

I want to make a couple of points. First, Mr. Sibley was not technically fired, rather, he was given a new job description. And, he outlined how and why the instances of his plagiarism happened. I am sympathetic with his explanation.

There is a vast, vast amount of material available now via the Internet. Add to that the pressure to meet ever-shorter deadlines as print tries to keep up with online material and you have a recipe for both deliberate and inadvertent plagiarism. I do not excuse it, but at least in the cases of inadvertent use of material I can see how it happens. When you research an article, it is easy enough to forget where you read what. It takes time that deadlines do not permit to carefully catalog where you found each idea–and the clip and store functions of computer programs adds to the difficulty. I have had to create a system for my own research, but it is a time gobbler.

I am told that it is not rare for professors to “appropriate” the work of their better students. And corporate America has its share of managers who take the credit for and idea, a marketing plan, or a job done by subordinates.

As in any discipline, writing requires a sense of justice and a well formed conscience.

I’d welcome comments from other writers.

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