INTERVIEW: Attribution and the Sin of Omission

By Reuvain Borchardt

Norman P. Lewis, Ph.D., an associate professor of journalism at the University of Florida, discusses the subject of plagiarism.

Lewis has 25 years of professional experience ranging from The Washington Post to chief editor of three community daily newspapers. His academic research, published in more than 10 different peer-reviewed journals, focuses on news culture and particularly its manifestations in plagiarism and data journalism. He teaches four data journalism electives that he created. He was named UF Teacher of the Year in 2010 and Cox/Palm Beach Post Professor in New Media in 2018. He was a Fulbright Scholar to Kuwait in 2018-19.

How do you define academic plagiarism? Is there a uniform definition, or does each school make its own definition?

That’s a good question — and a complicated one. First of all, there is not a uniform definition, if people are willing to be honest. My research has shown that the definition of plagiarism tends to vary with what people think the outcome should be. That’s unfortunate, because you’re letting potential sanctions determine the definition, and it leads to a lot of definitional ambiguity. That was actually the subject of my dissertation published in 2007; its focus, by the way, is journalism.

People tend to define plagiarism, at least implicitly, as improperly taking credit for someone else’s ideas or work. The trouble with that definition is it then requires a finding of malicious intent — that I desire to take something that belongs to you and take credit for it. That’s very difficult to show, let alone prove, and, in almost every case, people will deny, and usually correctly, that there was any attempt to try to steal someone else’s work. 

Prof Norman Lewis

According to the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, “When you fail to cite your sources, or when you cite them inadequately, you are plagiarizing … defined as the act of either intentionally OR unintentionally submitting work that was written by someone else.” So they say it doesn’t matter if it was intentional or unintentional.

Yes. And you just hit upon something important: it will vary by institution, and it will vary, quite frankly, by the context in which it occurs. 

The definition you’re citing from Harvard, and the more firm definition and what I would argue is the more proper dictionary definition of plagiarism, is quite simple: The omission of attribution when attribution is expected. 

Nobody argues that we need to have an attribution when you say who lies in Grant’s Tomb. It’s a well-known, documented historical fact, so I don’t need to attribute to whoever declared that General Grant is in Grant’s Tomb. 

But in academic work particularly, the source of the information of the argument is critical. In other words, while people see plagiarism as a theft issue, it is really a knowledge offense, a violation of knowledge, in that it hides the source of the knowledge.

I just got done publishing a paper on some research I did into social media use and its production associated with consumption. And I have about 120 citations in this 11-page paper. And all of those are critical, not just because I’m trying to give credit to anyone, but because there are a variety of sources and research on social media, and if I’m going to allow other people to evaluate the credibility of my work, I have to show them where the information came from. 

If you go down the path of whether somebody took my idea, you’re heading down a very perilous definition that’s fraught with ambiguity. If, instead, you define plagiarism as simply the omission of expected attribution, then it’s easier to say, “This is plagiarism, now what do we do about it?”

The trouble I have is when people look at cases of plagiarism, and decide, oh, that person is a good person, so we’re going to rename it something like “inappropriate borrowing,” or “insufficient credit” or something, and we’ll avoid even using the P-word. And that doesn’t help in defining it. So really, the core issue is one of definition.

In the case of Claudine Gay, Harvard initially said it was just “inadequate citation.” Is this a case like what you mentioned, of refusing to use the P-word because they wanted her to remain president? 

I can’t answer that question because I haven’t looked at her original material. But I can say that what Harvard initially said in her defense is, frankly, pretty typical: If you want to minimize the case, you redefine it as something other than plagiarism. Conversely, if you’re trying to get rid of somebody, you instantly call it “plagiarism” because that becomes a cudgel you can use more effectively. 

The first sentence of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources says, “When you write papers in college, your work is held to the same standards of citation as the work of your professors.” Did Harvard hold their president to the same standard it would hold students?

That’s a question that only Harvard can answer, so I can’t speak to the specifics. I can tell you that more generally, plagiarism occurs undetected all the time, of course. For example, we’re about to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. He plagiarized in his dissertation. Most people don’t know that. It wasn’t detected at the time. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t found out until long after his death. So an awful lot of plagiarism occurs without ever being detected. And thus, it’s hard to say whether a university holds everybody to the same standard.

The difference is when I look at a student paper, and I check the sources and I check the distinctive phrasing and say, hey, wait a minute, this sounds familiar, then I’m actively checking for the plagiarism because it’s a student paper with a grade before it. Whereas in my published research papers, quite frankly, nobody ever looks at them to see whether I’ve held up to my same standards. 

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library in Harvard Yard (Charles Huang/Shutterstock)

It’s pretty obvious that after the whole controversy with Claudine Gay’s responses on antisemitism, some conservative entities ran her works through AI or something and found this alleged plagiarism. And I’m sure that now conservatives will continue to do that against liberals, and liberals will do that against conservatives. Are academics quaking in their boots that their old papers from decades ago are going to come under scrutiny now?

From my narrow perspective, they are not.

There’s a website called Retraction Watch; they do a really good job looking not just at plagiarism but at research errors in published papers in a variety of fields. Quite frankly, if anything has people quaking in their boots, that’s more likely to be the one!

But when you’re talking about plagiarism, what you’re really talking about is a small percentage of bad actors; those people are always worried about getting caught. But the other 98% or 99% who are honest, and do real work and don’t fabricate things, they didn’t have anything to fear before and they don’t now, either.

So you don’t think plagiarism is rampant?

Not at all. I can find no evidence in either the academic or journalistic world that plagiarism is rampant. It occurs, but it is fairly rare. 

There are different kinds of plagiarism. People tend to look only at textual plagiarism, like if you come up with an original phrase that’s kind of clever and I just take those words. I ask you, Reuvain, have you ever had your work, or the work of others in your publication, suddenly show up in The New York Times without attribution, as if it were their own work?

Well, I don’t want to name any publications right now, but sure, our stuff has been stolen. Of course, in journalism there aren’t always firm rules about crediting. For example, everyone knows using a direct quotation would need quotation marks and credit; but what about when one outlet finds a story first and then another one gets the idea to do that same story? 

Right, so the question I was driving at is, can an idea be plagiarized? I’ve done a research paper on that: 75% of journalists don’t see any problem with it. But the other 25% said, if I’m honest, the only way I ever found out about that story was by reading about it somewhere else. So even though I did all my own work and I didn’t copy any phrases, I would have never known to even do this story without having read your story first. So there’s great ambiguity about whether you need to credit somebody for the source of an idea.

In journalism, generally if Outlet A has a major scoop and then Outlet B has the idea to go look into that and confirms everything on its own, they’ll still write something like, “This was first reported by Outlet A.”

That happens far less often than it should.

I bring all this up to say that there’s more than one type of plagiarism. And it will vary in different fields.

But in academia, which is what we are really discussing today, citations are the coin of the realm in many fields like social sciences and the humanities. That’s not true in, say, material sciences or engineering or where I’m testing the tensile strength of a new polymer. But when I am doing a research project, for example, looking at the impact of social media on producing material, if I don’t have a rich body of citations, I’m failing to advance academic knowledge. It isn’t a matter of just doing the right thing, but of actually not doing a good job of producing research.

So that’s why most academics would not be quaking in their boots: because they see citations as essential to producing good research.

How do you feel about people in the political world using plagiarism allegations, even if they are correct allegations, as a way of getting at their political enemies?

I think it’s very lamentable. I say that not to defend anybody who’s been caught but to simply say, if you have trouble with Claudine Gay’s testimony before Congress, go after her for that, if you have problems with her academic production before she became president — it’s a very thin record she has — go after that, whether she should have been hired. Instead, what happens is because plagiarism is presumed to be a grave offense if you can find it and make it stick, that becomes a cudgel that you can use in anything. And that’s really unfortunate. 

But to be fair, there’s a long-honored tradition of using a plagiarism allegation to get at what you really want to do. Let’s have an open and honest discussion about how you deal with both antisemitism and Islamophobia, and not try to find plagiarism as an excuse to then hammer other people. 

Let’s talk a little about political plagiarism. There’s a rich history there. For example, Barack Obama was accused of stealing slogans from Deval Patrick.

Joe Biden actually committed plagiarism 30 years ago. 

If it’s plagiarism, let’s call it plagiarism. The real debate is, what is an appropriate sanction or response? And what’s different about politics is that there isn’t really an expectation of originality. 

For example, there are only so many ways you can say “wokeism.” It’s not an original thought. So I would argue that you call something plagiarism, but then determine the severity or the sanction based on the context.

And if you don’t expect originality, it may not be as important an offense as it is in an academic setting, where the omission of citations is a critical barrier to knowledge production.

Then-Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) at a news conference on Capitol Hill, Sept. 17, 1987. Biden, then a Democratic presidential hopeful, admitted that he committed plagiarism in his first year in law school, but said a controversy over his failure to credit others for parts of his campaign speech was “frankly ludicrous.” Biden withdrew from the presidential race six days later. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

Will this Claudine Gay plagiarism scandal have an effect on academic research and academic writing?

I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on plagiarism, because it is very rare. And again, citations are the coin of the realm.

But there was a really good op-ed in The New York Times the other day by Charles Seife, and it says academia has an enormous problem with peer review. It’s an issue academia has failed to address time and time again — that the pressure to publish is so great that the peer review process is not as robust as it should be. And as he points out, when I do a peer review of a paper, it’s just extra work for me. There are times I’ve taken an entire day to do a very thorough analysis of the piece; that’s a day I could be spending on my own research. So that’s the greater problem in academia. And to the extent that this case points out the flaws in peer-reviewed research, perhaps it can be instructive. But I think the incentives are going to have to change significantly. In most research universities, like mine, doing a peer review of someone else is just seen as good service, and I’m supposed to do it, but I am evaluated only on the research I actually produce and get published. And until we view that scientific process of peer review with more seriousness and give it the resources it deserves, I don’t think this is going to change very much. Plagiarism is rare. But the real issue is peer review, which is where you’re supposed to catch stuff. Peer review currently is simply inadequate to the task.

Do you mean that they should start paying people more to do peer review? Or do you mean that they should hold the reviewer as well as the author responsible if it turns out that the article they reviewed was plagiarized? 

All of the above. Yeah. And many, many other things have to happen to make peer review really work.

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