Gerald Posner: 4 Popular Excuses for Plagiarism

A recent plagiarism scandal at the Daily Beast—culminating in the resignation of chief investigative reporter Gerald Posner—is a fresh example of the way plagiarism happens, and gets caught, in the Internet era.

Posner was first fingered on Friday by Slate media critic Jack Shafer, who—tipped off by a reader—found five sentences that were identical or nearly identical to ones from a Miami Herald story. Shafer called Posner out, the Daily Beast posted a correction, and Shafer applauded Posner's no-reservation mea culpa. Case closed?

Well, not quite. On Monday, Shafer published a sheaf of new examples of, um, borrowed material in Posner's work, and Posner resigned from the Beast, writing an explanation on his blog.

The Internet no doubt makes it easier to plagiarize—there's simply greater access to more material. But it also makes it much easier to catch plagiarists. Ironically enough, Posner's apology seems to echo (in spirit, not word) former New Republic reporter Ruth Shalit's excuses back in 1995 (the Cro-Magnon period of journalism, electronically speaking). Following in the examples of Shalit, Posner, and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (caught cribbing a sentence last year from political blogger Josh Marshall), here are four popular ways to excuse oneself:

1. I was overworked, and the pace of journalism makes it easy for things to slip through the cracks.
"The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer—with two years or more on a project—to what I describe as the 'warp speed of the net,' " Posner wrote, noting that since June 1, he had published 72 articles with "intensive reporting." Shalit, while denying that she had moved through journalism's ranks too fast, did say, "I'm a young reporter and things have happened to me very quickly … I wrote a lot of stories." Dowd did not blame overwork, but her apologists did.

2. I was working from a large text file of notes that got whittled down until I didn't realize it wasn't my work.
"For the Beast articles, I created master electronic files, which contained all the information I developed about a topic—that included interviews, scanned documents, published articles, and public information. I often had master files that were 15,000 words, that needed to be cut into a story of 1,000 to 1500 words," Posner wrote. And Shalit said, "The mistake came from having somebody else's words on my screen. From downloading Nexis searches as text files and then putting them onto my screen and later conflating them with my own notes. That is always a bad idea." Well, yes, it is a bad idea—and yet people seem to keep doing it. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin used the same excuse when caught lifting words in a book: "Though my footnotes repeatedly cited Ms. [Lynne] McTaggart's work, I failed to provide quotation marks for phrases that I had taken verbatim, having assumed that these phrases, drawn from my notes, were my words, not hers."

3. I might have cribbed the words, but I had the same thought, I didn't take any actual facts, or their words weren't really all that important.
Posner: "The material copied—facts, figures, the most mundane information, not great prose from another writer—is yet further evidence that my focus was on breaking news, but not enough focus unfortunately on the background information in the articles." A more contrite Shalit explained why that explanation doesn't cut it as an excuse: "In my first interview about it with The Washington Post, I said these were banal sentences or boilerplate sentences. That looks like I'm trying to minimize it. I don't. The fact is that someone else's words appeared in my story. Aside from lying, that's the most egregious offense in journalism. It doesn't matter that it happened inadvertently."

4. Hey, I don't know how it got there—I didn't even read it!
Shafer reports that Posner "couldn't figure out how he did it. He said he had no memory of having seen the Herald story, describing himself as 'absolutely sure' he did not see it before sending his own story to Beast editors." Dowd, meanwhile, said she'd heard the point she took in a conversation with a friend, though it's hard to understand how it got through nearly verbatim.