9 Comments

Summary:

The controversy over writer Nate Thayer’s failure to credit his sources, which some alleged amounted to plagiarism, is just part of an ongoing debate over how we use — and give credit for — information in a digital age.

Nate Thayer, the writer who touched off a debate this week about how freelancers are compensated, found himself embroiled in another controversy on Friday when he was accused of plagiarizing large parts of the piece that The Atlantic wanted him to re-work for free. In his defence, Thayer and his editor said links weren’t included in the original version due to an editing error, a mistake they later corrected. This failed to satisfy some of the writer’s critics, however, including the author of the piece that Thayer based some of his reporting on.

If nothing else, the incident helps reinforce just how blurry the line is between plagiarism and sloppy attribution — and also how the the web makes it easier to provide attribution via hyperlinks, but at the same time makes it harder to define what is plagiarism or content theft and what isn’t.

To Jeremy Duns, who first blew the whistle on what he said was Thayer’s plagiarism, the case seemed open and shut: chunks of the article about North Korea and basketball, including a number of quotes, appeared to have been lifted straight from a piece by San Diego Union-Tribune writer Mark Zeigler on the same topic in 2006. And there was virtually no attribution of any kind in the original version of Thayer’s story, which appeared at the NKNews.com site, apart from one oblique reference to the Union-Tribune — and no links.

internallinks

Even as Duns was writing his blog post about this incident of plagiarism, however, links began to appear in the Thayer piece, including a link to Zeigler’s original story. To Duns, this was evidence that the author was trying to cover his tracks, but in a comment to Columbia Journalism Review, NKNews editor Tad Farrell said that the lack of links was due to an editing error and that the site added them as soon as it could. Thayer vehemently denied that he was a plagiarist or that he intended to leave out the attribution.

So all’s well that ends well, right? In a follow-up post, the CJR’s Sara Morrison said that Duns clearly jumped to the wrong conclusions (since at least one of those who provided a quote that Duns questioned confirmed that they had in fact talked to Thayer for his piece). Duns wasn’t buying it, however, saying the attribution and links were only added later under protest. As he put it:

“Even hyperlinking to such a huge lift without mentioning the publication or author at all would have been something of a stretch – it’s a hell of a lot of material taken directly to cite with just one bolded word.”

Interestingly enough, Zeigler wasn’t all that satisfied either: although he said he wasn’t prepared to call Thayer a plagiarist, he didn’t think a couple of small links were enough to give him the appropriate attribution for his work. As he put it: “I don’t think just highlighting a few words of type in a different color necessarily qualifies as a proper attribution,” adding that his story “took a lot of work and a lot of man hours” to report and write.

The problem is that while adding hyperlinks is a great way of avoiding a charge of plagiarism — something that might have helped Fox News opinion writer Juan Williams and other alleged plagiarists — there is no accepted protocol for how or where to add those links, or how much content someone can cut and paste into their story or blog post without crossing the line from borrowing into plagiarism or copyright infringement.

How much content is too much to take?

payment

This is also the root of the controversy over what some call the “over-aggregation” by sites like The Huffington Post and Business Insider, where large chunks of stories from other sites — and in some cases, the entire story or post — is published, along with a “via” link somewhere at the bottom of the post. Other blogs, including The Verge and Engadget, have been criticized in the past for burying links to the original source of the content they reproduce, to try and disguise what they have borrowed.

And if you broaden the lens even further, a similar problem is at the root of the fight that Google has been up against in country after country over its use of excerpts from news stories in Google News — stories that come from newspapers and other traditional sources. Germany has passed a law to control the use of such excerpts, even those as short as a single word, and in other countries like France and Belgium, those traditional outlets have sued Google to try and force payment for that content.

Google’s defence is that it links prominently to the original source, and this drives traffic to the publisher’s site, which is fundamentally the same argument that Business Insider and Huffington Post and others use to defend their aggregation of content. But those whose content is used argue, as Brian Morrissey of Digiday did in a back-and-forth with Business Insider founder Henry Blodget, that taking their content produces far more value for the aggregator than it provides in return.

So it seems that when it comes to making use of someone else’s content, linking as a way of providing attribution and credit is enough — except when it isn’t.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Zurijeta and Arvind Grover

  1. A link at the end of a paragraph is not proper attribution. To begin with, any text lifted from another source must be placed within inverted commas, otherwise we are justified in saying that the author is passing of the words as his/her own. Online newsletters and magazines make this easy by using indented text, or other markers to indicate quoted content. If there are no such markers, regardless of whether the author uses a link, the writer is plagiarising another person’s work. In addition to a link, the writer should also use the person’s name. For example, if I quote this blog post, I should use it as follows:

    “And if you broaden the lens even further, a similar problem is at the root of the fight that Google has been up against in country after country over its use of excerpts from news stories in Google News — stories that come from newspapers and other traditional sources.” [Mathew Ingram at http://paidcontent.org/2013/03/09/plagiarism-and-the-link-how-the-web-makes-attribution-easier-and-more-complicated/%5D or embed that long link in the quote author’s name. There is then no doubt whatsoever that I am using someone else’s words to make a point.

    Share
    1. John Royce - Books and Eggs Sunday, March 10, 2013

      Good article, well-argued, thank you.

      In response to Tom Wilson’s comment, I would add that providing author and title information (at least author and title), as well as a link, enables the reader
      (1) to assess the reputation, authority, and credibility of the author (which may add weight if the author is well-known),
      and (2) may be useful in tracking down the original if the page linked to moves or changes or disappears.

      Or (3), if an editor takes the Word document, copies it into a plain-text-editor which strips all the formatting and all the hyperlinks, and then posts it online.

      JRR

      Share
      1. Except when I called you, Mr Thayer, you insisted on speaking off the record, rendering the whole exercise even more pointless than it already was, as I had found plagiarism both in quotes and out of them in your piece. On the phone, you evaded all my specific questions by asking me questions, often very loudly and abusively, and after an hour you slammed the phone down on me.

        You can get as outraged as you want, but there are still significant parts of your article that don’t have the full and proper attribution: the Rick Santorum quote from 2012, which you have fudged with a false date, is in fact from Mark Zeigler’s 2006 piece; the passage about Madeleine Albright’s visit, nearly a verbatim lift from Zeigler’s article; Carlin’s quote starting ‘We did not handle it as wisely…’ needs a clear attribution to Zeigler; you need a correction and explanation for a missing segment of one Carlin quote that hasn’t been indicated at all (‘Buffalo Bill’); and you need much clearer citations for several other quotes. Crucially, with several of Gene Schmiel’s quotes you need to admit that he did not say them to you, but wrote them in American Diplomacy in 2000. Just because you sneakily emailed him and asked if you could ‘use’ the information in that article doesn’t mean you get to pretend that he said it all to you. You knew the source, and deliberately pretended they were original quotes obtained by you.

        And you did the same with Larry Niksch for your article for Asia Today. I checked with him.

        I get why you think you’re untouchable: if people call your sources, they are a little confused. Because you interviewed them, quite a bit, and got some fresh material from them. But just because you did some stuff right doesn’t mean you didn’t plagiarize. You also email people juicy quotes they’ve said to other journalists or written earlier and ask if you can ‘cite’ those quotes. When they, not being journalists, do not entirely understand your intent and say sure by all means, you then cite them alright – but not to American Diplomacy or Reuters. You present the quotes as having been told to you. They weren’t. You just wanted to steal the quotes and pass them off as your own. Even your interviewees can’t give you permission to do that. You have to cite the sources. Not hide them so you take the credit. This is plagiarism, Mr Thayer, pure and simple.

        My second article, on how you do this, is here: http://jeremyduns.blogspot.se/2013/03/how-nate-thayer-plagiarizes.html

        If you’re at all serious, please read it and start getting all the proper citations in your article. Santoruim, Carlin, the Albright stuff, American Diplomacy. Then go back to the Asia Today one and anything else you’ve done this with. Start admitting what you do.

        And what it is called.

        Share
  2. I am not a plagiarist, nor did I plagiarize a single word in the story you use as a lead that gave you credence to write this story. Full stop. If anyone actually is interested in the truth, it is quite simple: ask me. Ask a single one of my sources. My telephone number and email are publicly available. You didn’t bother to even try and contact me. Let’s talk about ethics: In my 30 years as a journalist I have never been accused of plagiarism or any remotely unethical conduct. Not a single person called me to try and confirm this most egregious of allegations first to actually find out if it is true. Why? because, then they would have found it is not true and then there would be story. That wouldn’t do, would it. For you, it is acceptable to try and ride the crest of a wave based on absolutely zero evidence, to contribute to trying to ruin a man’s reputation, rather than bothering to check whether the allegations are correct. Jeremy Dun did not before writing his story. You did not. It is simply purely wrong. But now it is written. Look carefully, not a word of the charge that I am a liar a fraud a thief and a cheat is confirmed. Why? because it is not true. Of course, in this new world of so called journalism, there is nothing that can be done to repair my reputation. But if anyone wants to know the truth, here is a suggestion: ask me. My number which is on my LinkedIn page my FB page, in innumerable public spheres, is this: In Washington D.C. 443 205 9162. Feel free to call me. If the author of this story actually cared bout ethics of my beloved profession, he would have done what every credible journalist on the planet does. Check and see if it was true before you write it. he didn’t. if someone actually cares about the issue, instead of deeming my reputation as worthy of collateral damage to write a story that is premised on pure bullshit, they could call me. Why didn’t you? perhaps because it would mean you had no story or actually had to dig for something accurate before writing this bald slander

    Share
    1. Except when I called you, you insisted on speaking off the record, rendering the whole exercise pointless. You evaded all my specific questions by asking me questions, often very loudly and abusively, and after an hour you hung up.

      You can get as outraged as you want, but there are still lots of parts of your article that don’t have any attribution to Mark Zeigler’s at all: the Santorum quote, which you have fudged with a false date; the passage about Madeleine Albright’s visit, nearly a verbatim lift from Zeigler’s article; Carlin’s quote starting ‘We did not handle it as wisely…'; a correction and explanation for a missing segment of one quote that hasn’t been indicated; much clearer citations for several other quotes; and with several of Gene Schmiel’s quotes you need to admit that he did not say them to you, but wrote them in American Diplomacy in 2000. Just because you sneakily emailed him and asked if you could ‘use’ that article doesn’t mean you get to pretend that he said it all to you. You knew the source, and deliberately pretended they were oiginal quotes obtained by you.

      And you did the same with Larry Niksch for your article for Asia Today. I checked with him. I get why you think you’re untouchable, If people call your sources, they are a little confused. Because you interviewed them, quite a bit, and got some fresh material from them. But you also emailed them juicy quotes they had said to other journalists or written earlier and asked if you could ‘cite’ them. When they, not entirely understanding your intent, said by all means, you then cite them alright – but not to American Diplomacy or Reuters. You presented them as emailed to you. They weren’t. You just wanted to steal the quotes and pass them off as your own. Eve nyour interviewees can’t give you permission to do that. It’s plagiarism, Mr Thayer, pure and simple.

      Second article on how you do it here: http://jeremyduns.blogspot.se/2013/03/how-nate-thayer-plagiarizes.html

      If you’re at all serious, please read it and start getting all the proper citations in your article. Santoruim, Carlin, the Albright stuff, American Diplomacy. Start admitting what you do.

      And what it is called.

      Share
    2. I put my reply to you in the wrong place by mistake – it’s above.

      Share
  3. One of the worst offenders is BoingBoing, a blog filled with content written by others and repurposed to make the blog owners tons of money.

    They’re a good example of the real, most dangerous plagiarists of the web, the ones who pull out the meat of the story and put one or two sentences at the top to introduce it. They add nothing but take plenty of ad revenue. They usually bury some link at the bottom of the piece and claim that it makes it all okay. The fact is that someone else did 99% of the work that went into a post yet they want to take 99% of the ad revenue.

    Plagiarism is not just about attribution it’s about freeloading.

    Share
  4. I wonder if jeremy Duns secretly recorded his conversation with Nate Thayer. Duns does have form for this unethical practice http://jeremyduns-watch.blogspot.com/2012/11/why-telephone-taping-is-immoral-open.html

    Share
  5. Hi Steve – no, this was different to when I called you in that most US states, though not all, forbid recording a phone call withput informing the other party. But the UK has a different take, and there is a public interest exception. I see it’s you who’s been having fun with my Wikipedia entry. Very mature response, Steve.

    Anything to say about Thayer’s plagiarism?

    Thought not.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post