Tuesday, November 21, 2006

KAR Reader's Rep: Is It Really Plagiarism When You Subconsciously Write Down Metal Lyrics While Listening to Your iPod, Thinking They're Original?

A bit of deja vu hit Cynical Vikings Guy as he read a KAR ThunderJournal post today, purporting to be an original work of authorship. He knew he had read some of it before -- not just the ideas, but some clever turns of phrase.

"THIS IS PLAGIARIZED!" he wrote, "I'm sure I read this in a Star Tribune editorial last week!"

Well, no. He didn't read it in a Star Tribune editorial. But let's face it: he could have.

A KAR editor began investigating what had happened. The results of his probe were described in an editor's note published on KAR today, which read in part: "Upon further investigation by the entire KAR editorial staff, it was discovered that there were no 'paraphrased ideas,' only direct quotes. In fact, in the entire poem, only two lines can be characterized as original writing."
Beyond that note, he said, his dual role as editor and supervisor prevented him from elaborating on a personnel matter -- always a frustration for editors whose first instinct is openness. The editor said the note was intended to explain to readers what happened, make Iron Maiden and the others "whole" and still be fair to the ThunderJournalist, whom he did not identify. He said everyone involved in the investigation concluded the misstep had been unintentional.

That meant I couldn't get answers to what would be natural questions in the minds of readers: Was the Thunderjournalist disciplined? Were previous epic poems by this writer checked for signs of plagiarism? Because the KAR staff develops positions as a group and writes anonymous postings, I can't check for that without knowing the writer's identity. That being the case, I am completely absolved of any further responsibility to our readers in this matter.

But this case is exceptional, cutting to the core of KAR's credibility. There are really only three reasons plagiarism occurs, one is far worse than the others, but none are good. Intentional plagiarism is a theft. Unintentional plagiarism reveals sloppiness. And plagiarism due to listening to one's iPod under the brutal combination stress and boredom is just dumb. None of these inspires reader confidence.

Unintentional plagiarism is a specter that haunts even meticulous writers: In the midst of a complex project, will I go back to my aging notes and accidentally pick up a phrase that should have been attributed to another writer? In other newspaper plagiarism cases, that has been the enduring explanation: It was a mistake, I misread my notes, I was rushing and I'll never do it again. Sometimes that's precisely what happened. But if there's any flair to the writing, it strains credulity to think a writer wouldn't recall someone else wrote it. So much has not been disclosed about this case I can't guess at this particular writer's mind-set.

So you see, dear reader, the fault is yours. You're the stupid dupe who thought that a KAR ThunderJournalist could pull off writing an epic poem; or even the lyrics to a really wicked cool metal tune. You're the fools who think that anybody on the Strib editorial board can process a single thought without checking with their intellectual idols on the east coast first.

Shame! For shame!

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