Words: Bought, Borrowed and Stolen

Plagiarism. One of the ugliest things a writer or speaker can be accused of, but it doesn’t stop a lot of people from doing it.

Do they feel inadequate to express themselves or their ideas? Do they, sadly, have no ideas? Maybe it’s just the easy way out. It was the way out the door for a CBS News Web producer who had the job of writing commentaries for Katie Couric’s blog page. She stole someone else’s essay on the importance of public libraries and put Couric’s name on it. The consequences were firing for the producer and embarrassment for the anchor, partly because it revealed a secret of the business.

katiecouric-copy.jpgFrom a strictly narrow perspective, of course, CBS was justified in firing (producer Melissa) McNamara. The network paid her to write original essays for Katie Couric to read in video and audio clips made available on its Web site and to CBS-owned radio stations. McNamara deceived CBS by plagiarizing the (Wall Street) Journal. But CBS News wronged visitors to its Web site by inviting them to think that the opinions Couric expressed in these commentaries were her own.

Timothy Noah, Slate

It’s hard to imagine why the producer didn’t think she would get caught, quoting from such a widely read publication; even harder to imagine you could get a fairly important media job and not know that cutting-and-pasting another writer’s essay and putting a co-worker’s name on it (let alone your own name) is just plain wrong.

That’s a grade school lesson. But for those who get all the way to college and don’t know any better, it’s being taught there as well:

Turnitin.com is a plagiarism prevention system that began in 1996.

Each paper submitted is compared to tens of millions of previously submitted student papers, according to the company’s Web site. In addition to Internet pages, “papers are compared to a database of academic and professional content not available on the public Internet, including millions of articles and abstracts from over 10,000 journals and periodicals.”

The test program at SU was opened to the entire university and was announced to faculty through the SU news service last semester.

The Daily Orange

The paper says about 40 Syracuse University professors are using the Web site to vet students’ papers. As you’ll see if you click the link, the site also provides lessons for students in when and how they are allowed to quote the work of others, and why it’s so important to make plain the true authorship of all words that appear beneath their names.

It really is a grade school lesson, but it’s better learned late, than never.

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