Sunday, March 7, 2010

Copy and Paste Provenance

In today’s New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt, wrote about a recent case of alleged plagiarism by a Times reporter. Here is the explanation of how the plagiarism happened:

[The reporter] said he would copy stories from wires, paste them into a file in the editing system, verify the information and then put the material in his own words. At least, he said, that is what he intended to do. When I asked him how he could fail to notice that he was copying someone else’s work, he added further explanation: He said the raw material in the computer files in which he assembled his stories included not only reports from other sources but also context and background from previous articles that he had written himself. When putting it all together, he said, he must have thought the words he copied were his own, earlier ones. “It was just my carelessness in trying to get it up quickly,” he said.

It seems like those accused of plagiarism often have this explanation. Hoyt goes on to note...

The explanation was similar to one offered only days earlier by Gerald Posner, a reporter for The Daily Beast, who was caught by Jack Shafer of Slate cribbing sentences from The Miami Herald. Posner, who resigned after even more plagiarism was found, also said that he did not do it intentionally. He said he had poured all his research — interviews, public documents, published articles — into a master electronic file and then boiled it into an article under tight Web deadlines, a process that led to disaster.

This isn’t just about reporters cranking out stories on deadline. You might also recall historian Doris Kearns Goodwin had a similar explanation for her appropriation, without quotes, of another author’s verbiage in one of Goodwin’s books.

In all these cases, the explanation is more believable than not. The benefit of copying was minimal yet the cost, upon detection, was high.

What these people needed was a special copy-and-paste mode that retains the provenance of the copied text. That is, every piece of copied text would automatically say what document or URL it came from. Especially for an organization like The Times, which apparently has its own dedicated “editing system,” making such a feature available (or perhaps mandatory) seems like a good idea.

And for the rest of us who use Microsoft Word or Google Docs’ word processor, maybe it’s an option we will see someday too.

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