Once upon a time, there was a small Texas paper called Montgomery County Bulletin. It was run and published by a guy named Mike Ladyman who did everything from delivering it to apparently taking out the garbage. He had a writer on staff called Mark Williams who wrote a lot of the music material there. There was a little problem with Mark’s work though. He seemed to have copied and pasted large portions of his work from other sources and didn’t attribute any of them. One of the people he copied was Jody Rosen of Slate Magazine, who was tipped off that this was happening. Rosen did some online legwork and found that the extent of Williams’ unattributed writing was pretty humongous. Rosen confronted Ladyman about this and though he was polite, according to Rosen, he wasn’t very forthcoming with details. Rosen published details of what he found in Slate. Not long after that, the Houston Press reported that the Ladyman was closing MCB, under pressure from the criticism he’s received regarding Williams’ ‘work’ (by the way, the comments to that article are very lively and instructive, including question Williams’ very existence). In the HP article, Ladyman provides some reasons about why Williams work slipped by him and that he let him go. In the same article, we see a response from Williams about the affair where he lashes out at Rosen, who in turn had his own response for HP not long afterwards.
OK, so what’s to be learned from this? Obviously both Williams and Ladyman are wrong. Williams’ letter that HP published is a masterful example of lashing out against vicitms and actually (as pointed out in the HP comments) probably the strongest piece of writing he’s done, even if it’s all bluster and unnecessarily defensive. No matter how much work Ladyman did for the paper, to be most charitable, he was over-extended and should have at least gotten some volunteer help so that he could really edit the paper. Plagiarism isn’t something unique to small papers- remember Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair? The question is, what do you do when you find out that you have problems like this? Ladyman should have responded faster and more forthright to Rosen’s requests as the whole reputation of his paper was on the line. He did the right thing by letting Williams go and even going further by ending his disgraced paper (even if he provided some lame excused to HP about the affair). What bigger apology can you get than that?
Plagiarists can be a tricky bunch. Just as Glass carefully deceived his editor for a while, I found myself in the same situation with a writer once. When I found out that they had appropriated material from elsewhere (like Rosen, I was tipped off by a reader), I confronted the writer about this and they had a similar, angry self-righteous response as Williams. They said how hard it is to write a story and that appropriated some parts of other stories was no big deal. I agreed on both points but that didn’t justify what they did and I decided not to work with this writer anymore.
In the Net age, it’s a lot easier to catch these things but that doesn’t mean it’s easy per se. Diligent readers may notice egregious similarities between stories but no one’s able to scan the span of the Web to find out when and where it’s happening (and that’s not even taking into account some articles that don’t make it onto the web). So no doubt that this will go on in small and large ways with the writers and editors thinking they’re not doing anything wrong and/or thinking that they won’t be caught. So, what’s to be done about this problem? Unless you have some huge program to scan the web for similarities between each new article published and other ones out there, this is going to keep happening.