Friday, October 5, 2012

Looking for positive outcomes from plagiarism in the Margaret Wente affair

Following on from the earlier guest post from our York colleague Dawn Bazely regarding the Globe and Mail plagiarism case, we asked Dawn to tie up the loose ends by identifying some of the positives that have emerged from the whole affair. This is what she has to say....


There was a lot of learning to be had from following the Margaret Wente story last week. All in all, last week was important if you have ever written an assignment (e.g. essay or laboratory report), or have taught any form of writing or have read a newspapers or magazine. This covers pretty much most of the Canadian population!

Questions were raised by mainstream journalists, bloggers and hundreds of the readers of online stories, about whether Wente was guilty of plagiarism, and the behaviour of a number of Globe and Mail staff in responding to this allegation. These stories came out in publications that included Macleans, the Toronto Star, the National Post, and Toronto Life, and even the Guardian. Those asking questions included John Miller, a former dean of journalism at Ryerson, Elizabeth James with Vancouver’s North Shore News and the blogger at the Sixth Estate who wrote about How media should handle a plagiarism scandal

Why were the Globe and Mail’s ethics and standards being called into question? In a nutshell, several columns by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente had been scrutinized by an Ottawa artist and professor, Carol Wainio in her Media Culpa blog. Over several years, Media Culpa posted comparisons of older text by other authors to the text in some of Wente’s columns. Wainio made several of these comparisons. Wente’s columns made no attributions or reference to this other work, and strings of words were identical.

What made it possible for everyone to weigh in with an opinion, was that the Media Culpa’s blogs provided similar comparisons if text to those produced by plagiarism software, such as With Turnitin output reports, side-by-side text comparisons are made. Every course director and teaching assistant must make a judgment about these Turnitin text reports, and decide what to tolerate in terms of the cutting and pasting of text. There will be a process for taking this up with students whose work is identified in this way.

The response that unfolded to Media Culpa’s posts, which Wainio had conveyed on several occasions to the Globe and Mail, was that various editors and columnists (including Wente herself) defended a position on plagiarism in which a certain amount cutting and pasting of text written by someone else is to be expected and accepted. Reasons for downplaying Wainio’s text comparisons included the pressures of meeting deadlines. A number of well known writers in “old media”, aka the mainstream press defended Wente. Some of them expressed the opinion that upholding the standards and principles of “academic” plagiarism, or the standards taught in university and high school, was just too difficult. The Wente apologists included Terence Corcoran and Dan Delmar at the National Post. Back at the Globe and Mail, the editor, John Stackhouse and the public editor, Sylvia Stead provided very muted and restrained responses, only after torrents of internet chatter ensured that the story did not die down.

Is cutting and pasting so unavoidable, so that we are we all guilty of using other peoples’ phrases and sentences?
Some members of the reading public seem to think so. Jack, commented at the crux of the matter blog: “So she quoted without naming sources. I rarely do. Does that make me a plagiarist? “Sloppy journalism”? Disagree. If that were true we would all be guilty but we aren’t are we?”

The title of Dan Delmar’s column at the National Post was: Are we all “self-righteous” sinners cast(ing) the first stone at Margaret Wente? My answer to this is a definite “no”. Biology laboratory reports provide a good case study for evaluating just how prevalent cutting and pasting actually is. Hundreds of student do the same experiments every year, and write up their results. Up to to now, thousands of these reports have been run through plagiarism software such as Turnitin. This software checks for patterns in words, and compares one person’s text against that from other sources: the internet, other student papers, journals, and whatever other text is available and accessible.

The Turnitin reports shows that it IS possible for thousands of students to write up the same experiment with relatively little overlap in sentence structure. The one exception is the methods section, in which students often quote directly from the laboratory manual, and it has been easy to put guidelines into place for quoting them.

Nevertheless, IS the academic integrity project in jeopardy?
There may be a very real case for arguing that different kinds of writers should be held to different standards, but there is no doubt in my mind that if Margaret Wente had submitted the columns in which Wainio detected unattributed text as undergraduate assignments, that she would have been called in for a chat with the teaching assistant and course director. Not surprisingly, a US Gallup poll found that journalists aren’t high on the public’s honesty list.

While the entire affair raised serious questions about the ethical behavior of powerful members of “old media”, in general, I tend to agree with the Back of the Book blog, that there has been an upside to the Wente case.

Good pedagogy includes raising awareness about the rules of academic integrity and plagiarism. Academic integrity is not primarily about punishment but about learning how not to plagiarize, and give credit appropriately. Many of the frontline workers, such as grad student blogger, gradstudentdrone, in the war on cut and paste have stepped forward during l’affaire Wente, to acknowledge the challenges, and the grey areas of confronting plagiarism.

The reader responses have shown that these principles and ethical codes relating to academic integrity are taken very seriously by many outside of academia and the media. Being able to view the text comparisons directly, was no doubt a contributing factor to the outrage at the behavior of senior editors, and the picture that their actions paint of the corporate culture. Carol Wainio wrote several responses on her blog and in the mainstream media that were calm, measured and logical. This all served to reinforce the impression that a section of the media establishment has been making judgment calls that put them out of line with teachers, readers and members of the mainstream media who are more apt to look at the evidence without blinking. Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor described the Wente case as a test of accountability.

Perhaps the most positive outcome is the broad discussion that the Wente story generated. A very cool example is the discussion thread about this on the Vancouver Canucks Hockey team forum. Thank goodness the fans have something to distract them. This incident also gave many people cause for reflection and rememberance, such as David Climenhaga’s raising the tragic case of Toronto Star journalist Ken Adachi, who committed suicide after being found plagiarizing. 

Dawn Bazeley

Image by Jobadge. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

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