Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Plagiarism, journalistic ethics ... and climate change?

One of the big ethics stories blowing up in Canada right now concerns plagiarism and journalistic ethics. Namely, criticisms of a journalist at one of the big national papers here, The Globe and Mail, have gone viral leaving the paper, and the journalist concerned, Margaret Wente, with a serious case to answer. Many, ourselves included, have been underwhelmed by the response of the paper to what is an extremely serious threat to their legitimacy. As regular readers will know, we are pretty serious about plagiarism, as are most academics.In fact, one of our colleagues here at York, Dawn Bazely, who heads up the Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability, was so riled by the case that yesterday she posted a blog piece on the scandal. With her agreement, we're re-posting it here, since we think it makes an interesting contribution to the debate from an academic perspective. 
 SCENE: Kitchen, writing student references for medical schools, while CBC’s As It Happens plays on the radio.
JEFF DOUGLAS (As It Happens radio broadcoaster):
“”Media Culpa.” That’s the name of a blog maintained by Ottawa artist Carol Wainio. As the name suggests, the blog exposes what Ms. Wainio believes to be substandard journalism. Lately, her spotlight has been focusing on one Canadian journalist in particular: Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
On Friday, the Globe’s Public Editor, Sylvia Stead, responded to some of the issues raised by Ms Wainio. Ms. Stead included an explanation from Ms. Wente. But Carol Wainio isn’t satisfied, and neither is John Miller.
He’s the founding Chair of Ryerson University’s Journalism Department and professor emeritus. We reached Mr. Miller in Port Hope, Ontario.” (from The Monday Edition of As It Happens, duration 7 mins 49 secs)
DAWN BAZELY: “What the heck?” To my family hanging around doing homework and reading the Globe and Mail: ”Did you hear that?”
Yes, we heard it and after the interview with Prof. Miller (starting at minute 13:25 of the podcast), I read many of the blogs and the Globe and Mail articles about the plagiarism. The Globe and Mail admitted to some of what Carol Wainio has been documenting, though did not call it plagiarism. It culminated, this morning, in my sending a Letter to the Editor of the Globe and Mail explaining that until a transparent and public investigation takes place to restore my faith in their journalistic standards and practices, that I would be cancelling my online and print subscriptions. Too bad, because I am a huge fan of Lucy Waverman’s recipes, and my lobbying to get her back to the Saturday Life section from the mid-week section appeared to have borne fruit.
What does this debacle at the Globe and Mail have to do with Climate Change? A lot, actually (more on that in a moment).
It also has to do with how universities deal with ethics and academic integrity, including plagiarism. York University students are required to read the Academic Integrity webpages and do the tutorial about it. At York, I was one of the first professors to use Turnitin plagiarism software, because I brought in a lot of written work into BIOL 2050 (Ecology). Course instructors and teaching assistants spend a huge amount of their time educating about and policing academic honesty and making sure that plagiarism is not happening and if something is flagged as being potential plagiarism, filing complaints, holding meetings with associate deans and students involved, and then doing any follow up remedial work. There are large chunks of my life spent with tearful, upset students, that I will never ever get back.
So to read that a very public and polarizing columnist who has been given many board-feet of column space in what Chris Selley of the National Post describes in an online post as Canada’s “self-styled paper of record” is not only being questioned about possible plagiarism and that several instances of this have been raised in the past by Carol Wainio (you can read the comparisons of the text – they are all over the internet), but then to see the muted responses from the Globe’s Public Editor, and the Editor, made me feel utterly dismayed. THIS IS SERIOUS! In our courses, this would get students called into meetings, and if it continued (as appears to be have been happening), there would be a ramped up response and penalties imposed – severe penalties. Chris Selley quite rightly went on to observe that the Globe’s response “is completely out of keeping with the global journalism mainstream“.
I have written about the challenges of consistent blogging about sustainability, because of the time that I feel ethically obliged to spend checking sources, referencing and inserting links into posts, so as to maintain the standards that I am supposed to uphold as an academic. I get freaked out about accuracy and attribution. Apparently the Globe and Mail doesn’t see this as such a big issue.
And finally, climate change… It’s simply that Margaret Wente’s many columns on climate change, sustainability, energy, etc. indicate that she is happy to give a big shout out to skeptics and denialists and generally is not interested in considering the boring old scientific community in a respectful, (even semi-) balanced and informed dialogue. Furthermore, a number of her columns about about the environment have contained errors through omission – exactly one of the reasons for academic dishonesty charges being levelled against Bjorn Lomborg, himself a controversial climate skeptic – then believer – nowunfunded. I gave up reading Wente a long time ago after realizing that any time spent analyzing and responding was a total waste. The people now defending Wente in the comments section of the Globe and Mail appear to be supporting her because she speaks to their cultural beliefs and for them, uncomfortable facts are really not going to be that important (aka cognitive dissonance). A couple of years ago, the Globe and Mail actually did publish a response by Gerald Butts of WWF Canada to one of Wente’s anti-climate change screeds.
So, here I go – a bit of analysis and observation of a couple of Wente columns:
From a December 1st 2011 column, “Suppression of climate debate is a disaster for science
“Instead of distancing themselves from the shenanigans, the broader climate-science community has treated the central figures in Climategate like persecuted heroes. That is a terrible mistake, because it erodes the credibility of the entire field. The suppression of legitimate debate is a catastrophe for climate science. It’s also a catastrophe for science, period.” (M. Wente)
Sorry – but the climate scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were cleared ofmalpractice allegations, as reported by the Guardian on April 14 2010 in an inquiry headed by Lord Oxburgh. More of the same hacked emails were put out there after the inquiry had finished, by the denialists – but Wente doesn’t mention the Oxburgh inquiry results anywhere, as far as I can tell – though she does consistently say that the science of climate change is not settled. NOT TRUE! Surely the Globe could have afforded to send her to any one of the International Polar Year conferences held in Quebec.
And  in the same column, Wente cites an economics professor on the topic of climate science: “Ross McKitrick… at the University of Guelph who is a leading climate-science critic” A quick check of McKitrick’s publications on Google Scholar, indicates that he publishes papers about the lack of evidence for climate change with a co-author Patrick J. Michaels of the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, Washington, D. C. Hmm – wonder who funds them? – oh, that billionaire, Koch.
Previously, Wente had covered Climategate in a column, ”Climate science’s PR disaster“ in which someone called Steve McIntyre a skeptic and “anarchist” was heavily referenced. He has recently published a journal paper confirming  climate change in Antarctica, but this is his only peer-reviewed paper – his other writing is on his blog page.
The problem with these two columns is that Wente is conflating peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed writing. There is a whole field that considers academic and funder bias (but it’s not really ever mentioned by Wente).
I could go on picking Wente’s biased writing apart, but it’s pointless. She has sold many papers with this approach, and gets a lot of clicks on the internet. Except, that I cannot resist pointing out the irony of a June 14 column supporting fracking in which she’s actually calling for science: “I’m no expert on fracking technology, and I’m in no position to evaluate the risks. I have to rely on experts for that.” She fails to point out that there is research ongoing into this issue and a lot of concern about fracking. Yes, the research investigating the downsides of fracking is in its infancy, and there’s not much published on it, but Wente has never shied away from featuring the opinions of poorly-published people.
It really is time for the “legacy media“, as I have learned it is called, to step up to the plate and deal substantively with the allegations against Margaret Wente. This would at the very least, include running all of her writing through Turnitin or some other plagiarism software.
Dawn Bazely

Photo by smallestbones. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

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