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June 6, 2008

You Say Hello, I Say Hello

Tell us if you've heard this one before: A journalist, or writer, or academic is caught plagiarizing. He or she comes up with some half-hearted excuse, explains that the offense was minor, and is fired, anyway. A few months pass, rinse, then repeat. It happens so often that every plagiarism story seems almost, well, plagiarized.

The latest ethical bogeyman is Canadian sports commentator David Pratt, who lifted lines from an eight-year-old Rick Reilly column in a piece that appeared in the June 3 issue of the Vancouver newspaper The Province. His excuse? "It was Saturday and I wanted to get out before noon." Or, "There's clearly a higher standard in print and I'm not a print guy." (Oddly, that one may make sense. While Pratt was fired from the newspaper, he will continue to host a sports radio show.)

Plagiarism's been in the press earlier this year, too. Barack Obama may have taken a line in a speech from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, much to the chagrin of no one except Hillary Clinton. Last month, University of Iowa English professor Kevin Kopelson wrote a lengthy tome in the London Review of Books essentially claiming his entire career has been an act of plagiarism (though we have some doubts about its veracity).

Sometimes plagiarism pops up in odd places—as when parts of journalist Paul Tolme's piece on South Dakota's endangered black-footed ferrets found their way into Shadow Bear, a romance novel by Cassie Edwards. Edwards, who often writes historical romances, told the Christian Science Monitor, "No one ever told me I should be doing it differently." She still has her job, but in the future promises to "let my editors know where I got the research." Tolme, who didn't mind the transgression, has received emails from romance readers asking him to pose shirtless, an abnormal situation for any journalist.

Of course, most plagiarism does not go unpunished, as the former valedictorian of Ohio's Circleville High School found out. He was stripped of his status for lifting most of his graduation speech from a YouTube video, reaching what we can only imagine is a new depth of laziness. (The speech also derived its title from a famous Beatles song.) In our day, you had to search the internet and read stuff before you copied it. Fancy kids and their YouTubes.

A line in the first paragraph was plagiarized from a Gelf editor's email.

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