Plagiarists: The Vampire ChroniclersJune 16, 2008 2:42 pm Additional Resources, Reports
Mr. Macale is assistant editor of the Manila-based media monitoring publication Philippine Journalism Review Reports (PJR Reports). This article was first published in the May-June 2008 issue of PJR Reports.
In the age of Web 2.0, when computers and the Internet have become necessary research and writing tools for reporters, any one can plagiarize by using online search and copy-and-paste technology. But this convenience is a double edged sword: the same tools can also be used to detect plagiarism.
Investigative journalist Alecks Pabico found that out one Sunday. Since he had been writing about the generics drug law for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Pabico kept himself updated on the issue through Google Alerts. A useful tool that journalists can use to monitor issues, Google Alerts can send anyone information on whatever topic s/he wants through e-mail.
One item from Google Alerts caught Pabico’s attention: a special report on the issue from The Manila Times posted online that same day, Feb. 3. He was surprised that the Times report contained sentences and quotes that were eerily familiar. Pabico found that the Times report as well as an accompanying story had lifted several portions of a story he did on the generics law almost two years ago. The stories contained several paragraphs nearly identical with portions of Pabico’s September 2006 report. Even several of the quotes in his story two years ago were in the Times stories.
How could the Times story have carried the same quotes two years later when the quotes in his earlier story were based on one-on-one interviews? “It’s clear that it was lifted,” said Pabico, who is PCIJ’s multimedia program director. Curiously, the Times used a quote in Pabico’s report but instead attributed it to an unnamed source. More curiously, the Times credited the same PCIJ report in one portion but did not do the same for the rest of the copied portions.
PCIJ immediately complained to the Times: first, by calling the paper’s editor that same day, and by writing a formal letter a day later. Although some news organizations have used PCIJ stories that did not give proper credit to the organization, Pabico told PJR Reports, it was the first time that PCIJ had formally complained, given the portions copied.
“The similarities in quotes, we contend, are too glaring to be ignored,” PCIJ said in its letter to Times executive editor Dante Ang II. We hope that “you will promptly take appropriate action on the writer and the editors who may have been remiss in their duties and (who) thus wittingly or unwittingly caused this unhappy situation,” PCIJ deputy director Jaileen Jimeno wrote in the Feb. 4 letter.
The Times responded by publishing a front-page apology. “The editors apologize to Mr. Pabico, PCIJ, and our readers for publishing the articles which without our knowledge, had made plagiaristic use of the PCIJ-Pabico material,” the Times apology said. The Times also published the full version of the PCIJ letter on Feb. 6.
When PCIJ informed the Times of what happened, it immediately conducted an internal investigation and confirmed that one of their staff had plagiarized the PCIJ report, Ang told PJR Reports.
“It warranted a front-page apology,” he said, explaining that the Times regarded the issue very seriously. “We felt that it’s very important that to keep the respect of the readers, we must also be equally passionate about getting the truth.”
The plagiarism case will certainly have a negative effect on the Times, Ang said. “But I hope our readers would also appreciate the fact that we acted as quickly as we could, that we alerted them to this issue, apologized on page one, and we also printed the full letter of PCIJ which detailed all of the material that was printed on our report without proper attribution.”
Ang did not want to explain in detail the results of the investigation and the kind of disciplinary action meted on senior reporter Sherryl Anne Quito.
“I don’t want to talk about somebody’s reputation but suffice it to say that she feels terrible about it, she doesn’t deny anything. In fact, she offered to resign,” Ang said. He added that Quito’s byline will not be seen “for a while.” According to Ang, he has known Quito for around 10 years. “This is the first time that I’ve encountered anything negative about the work of Sheryl,” he said.
If Pabico stumbled upon the plagiarism of his report using Google Alerts, former Malaya reporter Anthony Ian Cruz discovered that someone had plagiarized him through the traditional way: by checking newspaper websites. And if Pabico’s article was plagiarized two years later, Cruz’s report was plagiarized the day after it was published.
As part of his daily work as a journalist, Cruz surfs news websites every day to check if Malaya used his stories and to monitor rival papers and other institutions. When he saw the item from the other reporter, he thought he was” just developing a story based on mine.”
“That’s no problem for me,” Cruz told PJR Reports. “The problem was that the entire article, except for the first four paragraphs, was copied in toto.”
PJR Reports reviewed Cruz’s Jan. 28 report (“Influential US journal says GMA sank RP into morass of corruption”) and compared it with the other report published the next day (“Palace downplays US journal’s charges vs GMA”) bylined by Sherwin Olaes of The Daily Tribune.
Except for four paragraphs of the government’s reaction to the issue as the story lead, the rest of the Tribune report was the same as the Malaya account published the previous day. Not one word or sentence structure had been changed.
His article was not based on a press release so there was no way Olaes could have used the same words and sentences, Cruz said.
“I took over an hour reading the 15-page academic paper and made use of the interesting potions of it,” he explained. “I found (the deed) very insulting for myself and journalists in general,” said Cruz, who is now a reporter for the Manila bureau of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. “The other person did not even make any effort to adapt my story to his own story.”
Cruz told PJR Reports he notified his then editor and colleagues at the Malaya of the incident. He did not know if his editor informed the other paper about what happened, but Cruz remembered what one desk person told him: “Well, you could look at it as a compliment.”
The availability and ease of getting information from the Web is one new factor in the proliferation of plagiarism. Because reports are easily accessible online nowadays, anybody can copy and pass them off as original stories. Journalists, however, can also use the online medium to check whether their reports have been plagiarized.
One way is to put a phrase or sentence in online search strings, journalism professor Danilo Arao said. If the phrase or sentence appears in other websites, then there is a high possibility that it was plagiarized.
“There’s no difference between somebody who copied and pasted an entire work from that of somebody who just copied one sentence,” he added. “It’s plagiarism, plain and simple.” A former chair of the University of the Philippines journalism department, Arao has also served as chair of the anti-plagiarism committee of the College of Mass Communication (CMC).
Currently the director of the CMC Office of Research and Publication, Arao is managing editor of the CMFR academic journal Philippine Journalism Review. He also writes a column for Pinoy Weekly and is a member of the board of editors of the online publication Bulatlat.
As search engines sometimes do not give useful query results, journalists can also go to human-edited directories such as the Open Directory Project to check, Arao also said. Entries and bibliographies posted on Wikipedia may also be a good way to start. There are also sites available that were specifically made to detect plagiarism such as Copyscape. Google Alerts or even a simple online roundup, as in the cases of Pabico and Cruz, may also prove helpful.
Online tools in detecting plagiarism can be combined with more traditional ways of checking, such as contextual analysis, according to Arao.
“You try to trace the sources that were used and from there you can more or less detect if number one, the writer was honest in terms of citing the data that was gathered there.” Other ways include detecting changes in the writing style, tone, and/or orthography (spelling) of the articles. Another way of identifying plagiarism, Arao added, is if the article in question does not offer “value-added knowledge” such as additional sources of information or evidence, or data updates.
PJR Reports conducted an online check of three random special reports Quito wrote for the Times. The check also showed portions copied from other news reports, documents, and accounts that were not properly credited.
Two of Quito’s three-part series on barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections published from Nov. 25 to 27 last year contained almost identical paragraphs from three different online sources, all posted earlier than the Times series. (Quito’s series starts here.) Identical paragraphs can be found here, here, and here.
Quito’s December 2007 series on bombs and other explosive devices did not cite some of the online sources she used. (Series starts here.) She used a quote from a BBC report but neither did she identify the source. Quito apparently relied as well on—but did not credit—an article from online technology news website Wired News about bomb detection. She also copied several paragraphs about bombs, including their definition, from Wikipedia—a popular user-edited online encyclopedia which has its share of inaccurate and plagiarized information.
For her three-part series on incineration and medical-waste disposal published from Oct. 28 to 30 of last year, Quito also copied some paragraphs from articles posted online—one article was even dated Oct. 1994. No credit was given to the online articles (here and here).
An online check showed Olaes had two articles that copied paragraphs from other reports without proper attribution. An April 15 report on the Japan Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement bylined by Olaes was entirely sourced from a Malacañang press release. His Jan. 21 report on the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland extensively used material from an Agence France-Presse report, but did not cite it.
However, it takes more than just online tools to curb plagiarism. Plagiarism continues to be a rampant problem in journalism. Likening the plagiarist to a vampire, American journalist and slate deputy editor David Plotz wrote in 2002: “The plagiarist is, in a minor way, the cop who frames innocents, the doctor who kills his patients. The plagiarist violates the essential rule of his trade. He steals the lifeblood of a colleague.”