Recently I assigned an article to a freelance writer. The article was for a to-be-launched website. The topic: high-end socks. I copy edited the article for grammar and style and passed it along to a freelance photo editor who was pulling images for the articles. The photo editor noticed a startling similarity between the copy the freelance writer submitted and a New York Times article. I will call the freelance writer Freelancer X and the copy Copy Y. I will refer to the writer as a he, but that is not necessarily the writer’s gender. The article in question was never published.
The editor who called this to my attention wrote:
Hey Joe: Doing research on “SOCKS” and, while looking for Gallo garter socks found a NYT article that our piece lifts a lot from verbatim.
Giuseppe Colombo, the head of Gallo, realized five years ago that he needed to “reinvent” his sock business if it were to prosper in more challenging times. The first thing the company did was to introduce a variety of bright colors. An exciting array of hoops, stripes and checked patterns completed the transformation.
FROM Copy Y:
Giuseppe Colombo, the head of Gallo, realized five years ago that he needed to reinvent his sock business (which was founded way back in the early 1900s) if it was to prosper in more challenging times. The first thing the company did was introduce a variety of bright colors, including an array of hoops, stripes and checked patterns.
I re-read both pieces several times. There was no denying the fact that the copy appeared to have been “lifted.” In addition to borrowing heavily from The New York Times piece, I found a few other instances of “lifting.” I wrote the following to Freelancer X:
One of our editors caught this. Stop writing the second article (that had been assigned.) You will not be paid for either, as the socks article contains instances of repeated plagiarism. I am deeply disappointed.
This is the definition of plagiarize, according to Merriam-Webster: “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source.”
To my amazement, rather than apologize, Freelancer X defended his work, writing:
“that’s not ‘heavy lifting.’ I didn’t take anything from the NYT article. I called the guy. You can ask Guiseppe. Yeah, I read the NYT article, but I didn’t take anything from there that I didn’t ask myself from calling Italy. Besides all of that happened. It’s hard to phrase it much differently when that’s how they reinvented their socks business.”
I was stunned. Even if Freelancer X did call Italy to verify the story, the writer used The New York Times’ own words in the article I assigned him. His justification? “All of that happened.” Also, no one accused him of “heavy lifting,” only of lifting. (Doth he protest too much?) I could have commented on the writer’s stunning lack of creativity, but instead I presented him with more facts:
I found REPEATED instances in which sentences in your story matched, verbatim, or near-verbatim, those that had already been written (somewhere else.)
The biggest challenge for socks is how they change over time because they usually lose elasticity in the cuff and toe while losing cushion and insulation in the toe and heel.
From Copy Y:
The biggest challenge for wool socks is how they change over time; they usually lose elasticity in the cuff and toe while also losing cushion and insulation in the toe and heel.
From the New York Times article AGAIN: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/20/style/20iht-rsocks_ed3_.html
There are 15 stages of production at Bresciani’s factory and a different person monitors the product quality at each one. Around 15 percent of the socks are discarded.
From Copy Y:
There are 15 stages of production at Bresciani’s factory, and a different person monitors the product quality at each one. Around 15 percent of the socks are discarded.
From day one, Louis Goldschmidt realised that seamless products were the future, be it the fully fashioned socks on the very first Bentley machines, to the ultimate hand linked toe seam that Pantherella is famous for.
From Copy Y:
Pantherella Founder Louis Goldschmidt realized early on that seamless socks were the future, be they the fully fashioned socks on his first knitting machines to the hand-linked toe seam that Pantherella is now famous for.
That is four instances of plagiarism, including the one from The New York Times mentioned below, that I found without actually doing much looking. You have a serious ethics problem, Freelancer X. Even if you did call to confirm that the story was true, you need to relay that information using different words than the reporter who originally uncovered that information. You are plagiarizing and you need to stop, because at some point, you’re going to [redacted because it will reveal who this writer is, but basically I said someday if he does this to the wrong person it will cost him his career.]
I was not expecting an apology at this point. Even though, unbeknownst to Freelancer X, his copy had now come to the attention of my boss and the client. In other words, it had become an issue — not the type of thing I ever have been or ever want to be associated with. Freelancer X responded by addressing one of the examples above. This is his whole e-mail response:
Well, those ARE the problems. That they lose elasticity. Do you want me to phrase it differently? There are 15 stages of production.
Freelancer X more or less said there is absolutely no other way to possibly rephrase that information. (Heaven forbid he actually do any real reporting and uncover new information, but that’s another point. It’s not like we asked him to unearth The Pentagon Papers. This was an article about socks. But I digress.)
[Redacted again to keep from revealing his identity. But basically I said repeated plagiarism will keep him from having a long and successful career.] What you are doing is plagiarizing, no matter how you try to justify it. You need to stop.
Sorry, my career’s just as long and successful. I’m not a plagiarist.
I had not compared my career to his, so I am not sure where that “just as” come from, but I think we were beyond the pale in terms of effectively communication with each other at this point. My response:
The article you turned into me says differently.
Then I guess we have nothing more to discuss.
We e-mailed a few more times. He still does not think that what he did was plagiarism.
And so I put it to you. Many of you are writers, editors, reporters and big readers. Is what Freelancer X did plagiarism? He says no. I say yes. Would especially love to hear from anyone who thinks I am wrong and Freelancer X is right. Please comment below.
UPDATE: I am getting a lot of responses on my Facebook page. I am going to paste some of them below. My FB friends did not know I would be pasting their comments to my website, so I am going to list their initials. Many of these people are reporters, editors and photographers.
DL: I’m just amazed there was an article on socks to be plagiarized.
AL: yes, it is.
CK: Yes, for sure is plagiarism. Had a similar situation internally at work – and the others in my group unanimously agreed it was plagiarism. Fool.
NK: Definitely plagiarism. Not even a question. Being a little snot, I would be tempted to rewrite the graphs how he merely needed to rephrase things to impart the same info and not be a plagiarizer.
AR: Well, how many ways can you write “15 stages of production”? LMAO! What an idiot. Blackball him or her and make sure they enjoy that long and successful career they think they have.
VS: It is definitely plagiarism!!! BTW, who is the audience you are going for with that detailed of an article about socks???
JN: Joe, I read your article, and I must say, it is very similar to a story I told you in person about my days working as an editor. In fact, it is lifted word for word from that conversation, including the links I gave you look up later when you would be at your computer. Stop publishing this story now. I am very disappointed. (JOE: This made me LOL.)
MC: I think you should publish this freelancer’s name and let potential future clients decide. My guess is 99.9 percent of them wouldn’t hire him/her if they knew about this.
RC: There’s no doubt the examples you cited are stolen from the original copy. Sadly, I get the impression that your freelancer doesn’t really understand what plagiarism is. There are a lot of writers without strong journalism backgrounds out there doing freelance work for web sites these days. Many of them – especially those under 30 years old who grew up with the internet and the ability to press CTRL C, CTRL P – have no idea how to research, source and write a story. This is an especially common problem with something called “MFA” (made for Google Adsense) sites. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can grab a bunch of articles on said topic, change a few words around, slap the stories up and start making money with Google advertisements. Many of these folks don’t even seem to realize they’re doing anything wrong. They assume that because they did the work of putting up and hosting a site that somehow this content is their own original work.
DD: That writer’s defense is as strong as Vanilla Ice’s at around the 1:00 mark in this clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFk-H486nOM (JOE: Excellent and hilarious comparison!)
MC: If that was done on a school essay the student would have been reprimanded for plagarism. On a side note, I love when socks lose elasticity. They are soooo comfortable.