Summation of the judgments from the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists — on the question of plagiarism in an article by The Daily’s Features editor

These opinions were those given after the Committee was given information that Coordinating Editor Drew Nelles rightly wanted them to have.

[ The body of my original email to the SPJ Ethics Committee concerned only the “particle-size” of text copied, and how that might bear on the question of plagiarism, because this was Drew Nelles’ defense in the case of Features editor Martin Lukacs. I didn’t mention the incomplete attribution that appeared at the bottom of the article in The Daily because I copied my juxtapositions of Lukacs and CCPA text from my email to Marc Lee, one of the CCPA authors. — I thought I had referenced the note about the attribution. In fact, the reference was in the body of the email, so it didn’t get pasted along with the juxtaposition. ]

The two members of the Ethics Committee who originally commented, with the smaller information, did not change their opinion with the additional information, contrary to the Public Editor’s prediction. Two new, more moderate opinions were issued, however. All emphasis mine:

>> Mr. Nelles, et al,

I agree with the points Prof. Buckman made, below.

I read the article on the Mcgill Daily site. I agree we did not know
about the note at the bottom of the article in relation to
attribution of sources. I would also argue that it’s very difficult
or impossible for the reader to know which study is being cited
which point in the piece. Quotation marks and specific attribution
would have been far more complete and accurate journalism.

Jerry Dunklee

Note: I think it’s very good to see this kind of economic discussion
in a college paper. It’s all too rare, and should be encouraged.

Jerry Dunklee
Journalism Department
Southern Connecticut State University


> I’ll put in my two cents, since I put in 10 cents the other
> day. We of all people should be careful about rushing to judgment
> unless we know all the facts, so I feel somewhat chastened. But to
> respond to one thing Mr. Nelles said, we really do NOT have more
> important things to do than answering student inquiries regarding
> plagiarism and other ethical issues. That’s what we’re here for, on
> both sides of that border, and I’m glad we were queried.
> If the sources were in fact attributed,

[DW: The Features editor used text and analysis from several sources that he did not allude to at the bottom of the page. Also, the bottom of the page told readers that only “information was taken,” not language or analysis. ]

> it does appear to be
> more a case of laziness, which I do not condone, than it does of
> blatant plagiarism.
Laziness is a professional matter, not an
> ethical one, which you, as coordinating editor, can and should
> address
. I just assigned my public affairs reporting class to write

[DW: Yet Martin Lukacs still had his position after 3 incidents that showed laziness or dereliction of editorial duties, without any co-editor appointed to work with him until such large-scale errors subsided. ]

> a localized article on the “almost-recession” and the mortgage
> crisis by bringing in an economics professor, a local mortgage
> broker and a local real estate market specialist for them to
> interview. They also have to interview additional LOCAL sources on
> their own. I have a firm rule against “interviewing” Web sites or
> falling back on other journalists’ articles.

[ DW: Those who read The Daily this year know that it might have the opposite rule. ]

> I know McGill has got
> authoritative sources who could be interviewed for a story in your
> paper on economic issues, or any other issue.
> Thank you for your clarification, Mr. Nelles.

Robert Buckman,
> University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Buckmann wrote to me, after the previous comments, it seems:

It’s an interesting and complex question. My primary concern is not just the lack of attribution but the lack of original input on the piece. Even if you have a press release, which news organizations receive on a daily basis, the sources should be attributed. That constitutes ethics. But a good journalist will not take at face value information that is spoon-fed through press releases, usually from public relations organizations that have a particular agenda. Facts should be checked and verified and other viewpoints explored; just because something is in a press release or a Web site does not mean it’s true or accurate. That constitutes professionalism.

Another, more pragmatic, reason for attribution is that if the information does turn out to be wrong, the error is attributable to that source. Let the source take the blame, not you. Readers are not stupid; they will discover if you’ve got your facts — even if they are someone else’s facts–wrong. You don’t want to damage your paper’s credibility. That kind of damage can linger long after you’ve graduated and someone else has taken over the paper; they will have to live down their predecessors’ carelessness or lack of ethics. [ DW: I quoted this paragraph in the list of reforms for The Daily. ]

In short, the size of the “particle” doesn’t really matter to me. If the information is lifted from someone else’s work, even a sentence, even a phrase, it should be attributed. But just as importantly, and this is what I was stressing, your paper should strive to develop your own sources locally and interview them instead of relying on the sweat of someone else’s brow.
I hope I’ve answered your question, and I appreciate the query. RTB


I don’t feel a need to change my opinion [that this is a case of plagiarism]. I counted at least three grafs with lots of facts and no attribution. The complaint from Adam early on was the writer used not just facts but conclusions from the works cited. Again, they were someone else’s ideas. I would tell him [the Coordinating Editor of The Daily] that we consider this most important and responding to such situations is part of what the Ethics Committee does.

It would seem an editor’s note of explanation would be in order here if people are that concerned about what the committee said.

(Nerissa Young)

Dr. Young also wrote to me, after she wrote her comments above, it seems:

I am heartened that such a discussion is occurring on your campus. Usually, plagiarism does not arise from evil intentions, per se, but a lack of education about it. Discussions such as yours help to educate.

I did see an extended explanation of the issue and article from the student newspaper editor. I still stand by my assessment. Taking someone else’s work, thoughts, etc. and presenting them as your own is plagiarism in my understanding. The information from the study should have been attributed, and in several grafs it wasn’t. Also, the analysis that appeared to be from the articles themselves [DW: I think she meant to put “studies themselves”] should have been attributed to the studies [DW: I think she meant to put “the articles”]. That amounts to taking someone else’s thoughts as your own.

It’s still the big “p.”

Good luck,


For me, the answer to your question come from this passage of your original email to us:

“For most of the piece, he paraphrased and rearranged things well enough, but a few passages showed him deliberately taking phrases from two other authors’ works, including some untechnical, descriptive language that he obviously worked to keep because he found it persuasive.”

If that is an accurate description of what happened and I have interpreted it correctly, I believe you have described plagiarism. Ethically, plagiarism involves more than taking someone’s words; the real issue is pretending someone’s ideas are yours. “Deliberately taking phrases from two other authors’ works” says plagiarism to me.

If by particle-sized, you are referring to the fact that he “borrowed” only a word or two here and there, I am still of the belief that he committed plagiarism. I know of no standard that allows you to copy xx number of words or phrases before you cross some line into plagiarism.

(And remember, the context of this committee and this Code of Ethics is ethical. I understand plagiarism has legal ramifications in your country. I am not qualified to answer any questions on the legal context of this issue.)

If I were still a managing editor and a copy editor brought this to me and said this column reads a lot like this press release, (or this study, or whatever,) I would have some tough questions of the reporter/columnist. Why is the author relying on others’ analysis of these studies without crediting their summaries? Did the author even read these studies or just the press releases on them? Is the author qualified to be making judgment on these studies, or is the author simply rehashing what others said. I guess the legend at the bottom of the column mitigates the damage, but it is not effective as proper attribution because the reader cannot tell what is the author’s work product and what belongs to those who wrote these studies (or the press releases announcing these studies). Surely, a member of the newspaper staff understands proper attribution standards?

Why even skate along the edge of this very thin ice? If the author did not deliberately plagiarize these other works, he came so close his work is being questioned. Why would someone do that? Why would he put this attribution at the bottom of the story, thus inviting others to read the studies, if he were going to copy material from the press releases?

Would I fail this student if this paper were turned in as work product in my column writing class? Yes. This does not appear, from what I can see, to be original analysis or original research. The concepts appear to be “borrowed” even if only some of the words are stolen.

I hope I have interpreted your question and description. I cannot guess what this author set out to do, whether he knew what he was doing would be considered by others to be plagiarism. Regardless of whether there was intent or only sloppy work, it still appears to be plagiarism to me.

Mike Farrell
Director, Scripps Howard First Amendment Center
Assistant professor,
School of Journalism and Telecommunications


The Daily Watch: My opinion is that the copying wasn’t accidental and the identical text and analysis wasn’t meant to be sourced. The Features editor can deny all he likes, to us or to himself, but the intentionality is evident in his actions.

Here is a brief section from my post after I read The Tribune’s story:

But the fact is, the “accidental copying” excuse can’t fly this time (although for his previous copying in the Olmsted article, it is believable). In the Feature piece about taxes, the cut-and-paste method is plainly there, showing his deliberations, and it’s obvious he cut in order to keep some non-technical, descriptive words. When he came to those words which he thought were good, he worked to make synonymous substitutions and slight changes to the words around the descriptive ones, leaving them alone. He can’t simply say the opposite and walk away from it. His “note-taking process” and “rewriting” clearly involved doing Ctrl-C (or Open-Apple-C) on sections of other authors’ texts, and then removing some of that text, paraphrasing, and adding some of his own. That’s not really a note-taking process; it’s more accurately a text-subtracting one. And it’s a wrong way to do journalism, not just a “lazy and sloppy” way.

[…] The newspaper’s lowest moments are when they employ a say-anything self-protectivism, and I’m still stunned that the Coordinating Editor is talking about a “four-word rule.” That for me was the biggest revelation of the Trib story.


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