Butter Churns and Plagiarism

I think it’s good we’re talking about plagiarism in class tomorrow- but I’ll have to admit I’m half dreading the conversations sure to come up in it.

I am a journalist- a profession much maligned by the general public at large for inaccuracy, immorality, and yes, plagiarism, among many other misdeeds. I pride myself in the fact that in my professional journalistic life, I keep my ethics high, but despair at the many out there who don’t feel as strongly or are not as careful as I usually am.

See- I know how easy it can be sometimes. I’ve seen people do it and I worry about it in my own notes. You do background research on a topic- take notes sometimes with exact quotes from sources- then use it as reference when you’re writing the story. I do my best to always set these exact quotes apart and never to use them in my own writing- but I can see how it can happen.

Back as a young overachieving perfectionist child in fourth grade- I did a science project on different butter churns and which one worked better. I’m not exactly certain what drew me to this subject except for my fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder from an early age. While writing up the background information paper, I copied portions from a book describing pasteurization, knowing it was wrong, but not knowing how else to phrase the information. My mother caught me at it- apparently she figured out that I didn’t really know what all those long words meant- and gave me a stern lecture that’s stayed with me since.

However, it’s not so easy to tell plagiarism most of the time. As we grow older, our obvious vocabulary or writing deficiencies aren’t as obvious- and our editors and bosses are less likely to notice our errors. It’s hard- unless the piece is obviously not in the writer’s style, or the reader googles each and every sentence- sometimes it can be impossible to tell.

I know. I have myself missed plagiarism in a writer’s work not so long ago. It was a simple error on her part- a mess-up with notes and mental exhaustion- that I just missed completely. It got published and caught- she was derided as a liar and a bad reporter who could not be trusted. The entire publication fell under suspicion and a witch hunt began- many of my other writers were accused of plagiarizing in cases that they had not- some readers called for the firing of the writer and every editor who missed the mistake. The worst part is how this ended up really affecting the writer- her credibility was shot for good- she is not put in any position of authority even now- not because of a lack of trust from her bosses, but because of the knowledge that the readers can not and would not trust her or give her a chance to regain that trust in such a position.

To this day, I feel so guilty- like I let her down completely. I wish with my whole heart I had checked a little closer- saved her from all the grief that’s befallen her. I do my best to keep my journalistic ethics clean from any spot or need for reproach to avoid her fate.

It makes me wonder- how do I, who work to keep my ethics in my profession so high, justify the fact that by participating in this class, I will be creating a hoax designed to fool the people around me? What higher purpose is being served here? Is in fact, there any at all?

I don’t know yet- I just don’t know.



Here’s a fascinating article on plagiarism from Slate, coincidentally published on my 14th birthday. It actually analyzes why plagiarists do what they do, how society doesn’t have any prescribed punishments for plagiarism, and why many writers live in fear of accidental plagiarism.