Thayer, Williams plagiarism scandals highlight undefined standards for online attribution

Plagiarism allegations against Nate Thayer and Fox News pundit Juan Williams this week might suggest “a plague of online plagiarism,” but more importantly they underscore the need for the industry to establish standards for online attributions so that such errors are not repeated. Sure, Thayer said that “every reference in the story was properly cited,” but in this new territory, who’s to say what is proper? The scandals highlight how much experts disagree.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 11, 2013

After Thayer angrily blogged that The Atlantic had requested him to repurpose his NK News article “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy” for free, allegations surfaced that much of his story had been copy and pasted from a 2006 U-T San Diego article by Mark Zeigler. Author Jeremy Duns announced on his blog, “Nate Thayer is a plagiarist,” comparing Zeigler’s article to NK News’. Duns found that the two articles shared not only verbatim quotes but also other passages. “This is blatant plagiarism, of the type that gets you kicked out of school,” Duns wrote.

Before it was updated, the NK News article linked to Zeigler’s article once without mentioning the author by name (the article gives credit to “documents obtained by the San Diego Union Tribune in 2006”). But such original spotty citation misleads readers into believing that the reporting is original, when in fact Thayer heavily relied on Zeiger’s legwork, Duns surmised.

Thayer defended himself on Twitter saying, “Every quote in my article is from an interview or if not cited as. … Read before you libel.”

However, NK News founder Tad Farrell later admitted to New York Magazine, “we had numerous attribution errors,” and the article has since been updated with more links and further attribution. Farrell suggested the problem stemmed from the fact that Thayer did not review the article before publication, according to Columbia Journalism Review, but Thayer’s copy of the same article, posted on his blog, contains the same attribution errors. Clearly 25-year journalism veteran Thayer thought his citations adequate — but others disagree, notably Zeigler himself.

“I don’t think just highlighting a few words of type in a different color necessarily qualifies as a proper attribution,” he told CRJ.

Zeigler added that his reporting required “a lot of work and a lot of man hours,” which Thayer’s passing mention and link did not recognize. This divide highlights how the Internet has made both citation and plagiarism easier, as paidContent noted: Linking to an article takes only seconds, but so does copy and pasting. Does including a hyperlink to an original article without further mention of the author qualify as sufficient attribution? Experts disagree.

“There is no accepted protocol for how or where to add those links, or how much content someone can cut and paste into their story or blog post without crossing the line from borrowing into plagiarism or copyright infringement,” Mathew Ingram writes.

These questions emphasize the need for standards, which panelists as last year’s SXSW attempted to establish. Simon Dumenco, outraged that his article in Advertising Age received more clicks when aggregated on Huffington Post, formed the Council on Ethical Blogging and AggregationDavid Carr of The New York Times reported. Additionally, BrainPicking’s Maria Popova developed the Curator’s Code, a shorthand for citations that recognizes information taken directly from other sources and additional commentary on other websites.

Considering we haven’t heard much from the Council since its creation last spring and you don’t see Curator’s Code symbols on many blog posts, clearly neither of the proposed options have caught on. But until standards are defined, we can expect that these scandals won’t be the last of their kind.

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