Plagiarism and fabrication have gotten a lot of press in the last year.
Much of the discussion has centered on the crime and punishment angle — questions about specific instances of plagiarism and fabrication and if the resulting punishment was too tough or not tough enough.
Then there are the whys of plagiarism and questions about whether to rehabilitate offenders.
But the other side of the story is what plagiarism does to the integrity of a publication. And that’s the part where copy editors can play a big role.
“Part of a copy editor’s job is to preserve the integrity of the editorial product,” Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics, reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute, said in a phone interview. “No editorial product can maintain its integrity in the face of demonstrable plagiarism.”
McBride said combating plagiarism needs to start early in the process. Assigning and line editors should question writers about their reporting and research process.
Copy editors play specific roles when it comes to plagiarism.
“One is to stop plagiarism before it is published,” she said.
As fact checkers, copy editors may be able to find plagiarism even when they aren’t specifically looking for it.
“You may say ‘wait a second, this New York Times article says the same thing your article says and it’s already been published,’ ” McBride said.
Copy editors also can detect writing that deviates from a reporter’s general style. Is the writing in a different voice than normal? Does the writing cover a complicated topic that the reporter previously struggled with?
“When you see text that seems distinctly different, you need to be checking it out, and it’s actually easy to do that. Google it,” McBride said.
Media blogger Steve Buttry, director of Community Engagement and Social Media for Digital First Media, agrees.
“If I were copy editing now, I would routinely Google one or two of the most distinct passages (six-seven words or more) in a reporter’s story to see if they show up somewhere else. If they do, that’s a red flag and I’d examine the hit(s) to see how similar the two pieces are,” Buttry said in an email interview.
“I’d trust my spider sense,” said Buttry, who worked on the Des Moines Register’s copy desk early in his career. “If something doesn’t feel right, a copy editor should check it out thoroughly.”
McBride said she thinks it’s viable for copy editors to do regular random Google checks on copy. For one thing, doing that will help make a copy editor more efficient at spotting plagiarism without a check, she said.
“There needs to be some kind of conversation in the newsroom that says ‘hey writers, this is the sort of safety net we provide for you,’ ” McBride said. “So let them know that you’ll be doing that regularly.”
The benefits are twofold: First, making that process known can be a deterrent to writers who might intentionally plagiarize. Second, it helps the writers who are good, but might unintentionally miss something like an unattributed quote.
“It gives them a sense of safety,” she said. “After all, backup is part of what copy editors do.”
There is software meant to spot plagiarism — for instance, Turnitin, an online plagiarism checker used by many U.S. colleges. But the software is expensive and sometimes tags material that isn’t plagiarized. (For instance, if a source tends to use similar phrasing frequently, Turnitin will tag any story that uses that phrasing.)
“So you can’t just rely on software to say yes or no. You still need the eyes,” McBride said.
“I also think that part of the job of a copy editor is to be widely read. So if you are reading a profile of a certain football player, hopefully it’s not the first time you’ve read a profile of that football player. So you’ve read about them, and know what else is being said out there,” she said.
The checks copy editors do for plagiarism shouldn’t target specific writers, though, McBride said. Copy editors should assume that it’s part of their responsibility to provide a safety net for everyone.
“Anytime that you fall into the line of profiling — when you’re going to start checking perhaps just the younger writers — it’s not going to be effective,” she said. “If you just assume that the system is weaker than it used to be, then you’ll start to develop a sense for when a writer might be in trouble, rather than profiling. You should go into it thinking that the writers want to do a good job and they want to do it with integrity.”
Copy editors can help a publication or news organization achieve transparency by making sure stories explain how information is gathered.
“If we start with the principal that our audience should always know how we got our information, then when you are quoting information, you start at the beginning. You always attribute,” she said.
Buttry offered that same advice in his Buttry Diary blog on Feb.18, 2010: “Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism,” he wrote.
In a recent email, Buttry said as a copy editor, he would not stop at plugging distinct writing passages into a browser for a check.
“You could do the same with quotes to see if a writer is stealing quotes from another story without attribution,” he said.
The current system doesn’t always play into that sort of transparency.
McBride said the way news organizations have traditionally incorporated Associated Press material into stories ¬— perfectly legal, but perhaps not always clear to the reader — can create confusion about where source material originates.
“We haven’t refined the muscle that lets us be transparent with our audience. Until we are completely transparent with how we get our information, we are always going to run into situations of quote lifting,” she said.
Copy editors can — and should — play a role in promoting transparency and promoting good newsroom practices.
But beyond the audience, there’s another reason copy editors should be involved in combating plagiarism, and it’s related to the changing role of the copy editor.
“Our old editing process was modeled on an industrial process. We don’t produce copy on that type of industrial model any more,” McBride said. “As a result, I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to editing, the boundaries are much less defined than they used to be.”
As a result, many copy editors find themselves doing more today — perhaps aggregation and linking on the web, or playing a bigger role from the inception of a story. Many find themselves doing more coaching in their newsrooms.
As copy editors “you want to elbow your way into the conversation,” she said. “It shows that you are valuable for the process.”
Editor’s note: This article was first published in the Sept./Oct. 2012 ACES newsletter.