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Plagiarism, defamation and the power of hyperlinks

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What do Fareed Zakaria, Jonah Lehrer and Gawker Media have in common? In different ways, the incidents that have thrust all three into the news recently help to show the power of the simple hyperlink, which Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed along with the rest of the web a little over two decades ago. Zakaria is the Newsweek editor and CNN talk-show host who was recently sanctioned for plagiarism, and Jonah Lehrer is the former New Yorker writer who was banished from the magazine for similar crimes. Gawker Media, meanwhile, shows us the flip side of those two coins: the New York-based blog network recently escaped from a hefty defamation lawsuit in part because it recognizes the power of the hyperlink.

Last month, the blog Newsbusters discovered that a large chunk of a piece that Zakaria wrote for Time magazine about gun control was almost identical to sections from a New Yorker piece on the same topic, written by Jill Lepore. Zakaria was subsequently suspended by both Time and CNN (although he has recently been reinstated after both entities said they found no evidence of further plagiarism). Lehrer, meanwhile — a high-profile author — was fired by resigned from the New Yorker after it was discovered that he had duplicated information from a number of sources.

Plagiarism is just inefficient hyperlinking

One of the themes that has been brought up repeatedly in stories about both Zakaria and Lehrer is the idea that they have been overworked as a result of media multi-tasking. Stories about the Lehrer incident, for example, note that he was writing books and had a packed public-speaking schedule while also trying to write a blog for the New Yorker, and Zakaria made the same link by saying he plans to cut down on his responsibilities — implying that this was to blame for him mixing up his notes from the New Yorker piece with his own writing (he also said he recently hired an assistant).

But I think CEO Aaron Levie put his finger on a big part of the problem in a tweet he posted recently, in which he said plagiarism “is just really inefficient hyperlinking.”


Although he probably just intended to be witty, I think Levie makes a good point. Plagiarism is defined as the attempt to “steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own,” and it is the last part of that definition that is the most important one. It isn’t so much that a writer like Lehrer or Zakaria takes information from someone else and uses it in a column — plenty of writers do that, and as the media world has exploded thanks to social tools such as blogs and Twitter, this phenomenon has only become more commonplace. But neither of them gave credit to the source of the content they used, and that was the real crime.

This is exactly the same kind of argument that gets made about news aggregators or blogs that do a poor job of crediting the source of the content they are aggregating. As Jeff Jarvis has argued in a series of recent posts, since copying is rampant on the internet, we should be more focused on ways of giving credit to the source or creator of that content. And what better way to give credit than by linking prominently to its originator? This is just another reason why links are the lifeblood of the internet, as I argued in a recent post about the back-and-forth between bloggers and the traditional media over the latter never giving credit to the former.

Linking also provides a great defence

If either Zakaria or Lehrer had been more devoted to the idea of linking to sources, they might have spent more time making note of where the information they were using came from, so that they could include a link — in the same way that academics routinely cite footnotes to back up their claims. Would they still have tried to pass those sections off as their own? Perhaps. As my paidContent colleague Laura Owen has noted about Lehrer, some of his behavior was likely a result of the pressure to be a public intellectual. But if either one is sincere about how their plagiarism was an honest mistake, paying more attention to linking might help.

And if anyone needs evidence of how a consistent policy of linking to sources can be a positive thing, they should look no further than the Gawker case: the blog network was sued by a company for defamation, based on a piece that the tech blog Gizmodo wrote about its products. In a decision that acquitted the media company of this charge, the court said that part of the rationale for its ruling came from the use of links in the Gizmodo piece, which provided ample evidence of what the post was referring to. As the court decision put it:

“Having ready access to the same facts as the authors, readers were put in a position to draw their own conclusions about Redmond and his ventures and technologies… Statements are generally considered to be nonactionable opinion when the facts supporting the opinion are disclosed.”

David Weinberger, co-author of the seminal book The Cluetrain Manifesto and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, argued in a post about the journalistic principle of objectivity that “Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.” In other words, when you have the ability to link to information that supports your conclusions, it’s easier to get away with being subjective, because readers are able to follow the links and decide for themselves whether you are credible.

I think the same principle applies to plagiarism: it is something that occurs when a medium doesn’t allow — or at least doesn’t encourage — links to original sources. The internet may make it more likely that someone copies content from another, but it also makes it easier to fix.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user skedonk

18 Responses to “Plagiarism, defamation and the power of hyperlinks”

  1. You are right Mathew. Plagiarism has become more widespread in the last few years, as more and more people want to make use of other’s content, without taking the trouble to create their own content. If there’s any perfect time to root it out, now is probably the best time or it would be too late I guess.

  2. Ken Harvey

    Plagiarism is simply copying or paraphrasing without citing the source. This was not apparent in the older college environment with 10-40 students. Individual variation might give unique regurgitations of the lectures and general knowledge. With 100,000 online students attempting to expound, I would guess there would be a high proportion of apparent “plagiarism.” Now the question is: How much of the preceding statement is an inadvertent plagiarism? Kenneth L. Harvey

  3. Has anyone else noticed: The bigger the publication, the less likely it is to include links in articles. It seems like most small-time bloggers fill the articles they write with source links, while big-time magazines don’t, even online. It’s obnoxious how magazines like Time or Newsweek can spill 2,000 words on a subject, like a recently-passed bill, without once giving me the link to the subject. Is it an old-school mindset, a holdover from the print days? Or do they think they’re above that kind of thing, which is a touchstone of ‘blogging’?

  4. Brad Dalton

    I’ve seen a lot of copying of content and idea’s and it mostly comes from America and India.

    I’ve found that big blogs like to use guest authors to copy content and idea’s rather than do it themselves.

  5. Prasant Naidu

    These people who know the business so well don’t do mistake. now it is a different question if someone else is writing. what is being asked is a small mention and for that people have a problem. I am a blogger from India and has recently faced similar problem where a 15 yr old tech site Silicon India copied the complete article. Later when we made noise via social media the article was deleted without no apology when I am earning my bread via my blog.

    So is it the ego. rest what makes me wonder is that this is a rampant practice and in India where the laws are not strong for heinous crimes then no one would look at plagiarism. Wonder how big was this practice in traditional days when there was no link back :)

  6. I will agree that hyperlinks are an amazing and efficient way to site sources, especially on the internet.

    I’ve always felt that for written papers, plagiarism is a temptation for students, especially when properly cited sources and MLA formatting impede the process. When it becomes such a chore to cite a source, a writer may be more willing to test the boundaries.

    Another win for the internet.

    • Thanks for the comment, Melody — my point was that if doing that was truly a mistake, as Lehrer says it was, then the discipline of finding and linking to things like quotes would have prevented it from happening.

  7. It seems unfair to Fareed to put him in the same boat as Lehrer. It seems like Fareed honestly made a mistake, to the point of your article. But in Lehrer’s case, it seemed to be his intention to deceive.

  8. Not to defend Jonah Lehrer, but his problem was not plagiarism so much as fabrication. His plagiarism was self-plagiarism, i.e. he reused his own material in multiple places. Citing his own work as sources for his reduplicated material would have been self-defeating (not that he was correct to reduplicate). The thing that brought him down was his admission of fabricating quotes, specifically from Bob Dylan, in his book Imagine.

  9. Damaged

    You said in the above article: “in the same way that academics routinely cite footnotes to back up their claims.” I agree to some extent. While the two – hyperlinking and citing the source – serve the same purpose, there are distinctions to be made between the two. A citation, in print or online, serves as a more or less permanent reference to the source of the information being cited, whereas a hyperlink can expire due to the removal or relocation of the page being cited. Also in favor of the traditional citation is its versatility: the obvious fact that an article not yet online cannot be linked to while an online source can be cited in a print publication. A book may become rare, editions may vary, but the original cited material can under ordinary circumstances be brought forth by the author. For a demonstration of the futility of a hyperlink no longer capable of linking one need read an article on Wikipedia.

  10. I think that is not the case with Jonah Lehrer. His latest scandal was that he fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan which is either non-existent or the result of misquoting sayings in a different context. He did it on his latest printed books, which makes it impossible for hyperlinks. Moreover, in this case, the fact that he did not put any further references to the quote might be because he intentionally created the fake quotes and giving references to where readers coulf fact-check it would be a suicide for him.

  11. Nick Kellet

    It struck me that is should become easier to reuse , credit and backlink your sources than it is to copy it.

    That’s just a technology problem and a mindset.

    Making it so simple will encourage and reward the right behaviour, which will impact culture in a positive way.

    This become as much a publisher problem. eg Quoting from books, especially Kindle is tiresome and tedious.

    • Perhaps it is also a failure of the writing tools the “disgraced” authors used? What writing tools help an author curate and cite references they use? GigaOm could do a survey of writing tools, apps and applications just looking at this one feature alone. Doesn’t something like Scivener have something like a corkboard or a research draw for research material and links? It strikes me, we may be at the point where we need an IDE for writing, in addition to editing tools, some sort of debugger to comb the writing and flag sentences and passages in red that may be part of the writer’s research.