As the general manager of the iThenticate plagiarism detection service, Robert Creutz has unique insight into the recent Gerald Posner plagiarism flap at The Daily Beast.
Posner’s theft was first identified by Slate’s Jack Shafer, which caused Beast editors to begin looking into Posner’s previous work. (Meanwhile, Shafer published another column that revealed additional examples of Posner plagiarism.) At the same time that was going on, someone at the Beast started paying $50 a pop to run articles through iThenticate’s pay-per-use plagiarism check. (Most of the company’s customers pay an annual licensing fee, combined with a per-scan price.)
“I don’t know what their need would be for the service going forward, but at the rate they were using it, it might be worth it for them to sign up [for a subscription],” Creutz said.
If recent experience is any indication, that’s not going to happen. iThenticate, which is the largest of the many plagiarism detection services out there, has yet to make inroads with the journalism industry. It has relationships with seventy-five publishers of scientific journals, but it seems newspaper and magazine companies aren’t interested in checking their work for plagiarism. That’s worth examining given that over the past two weeks, The Daily Beast and The New York Times discovered they had plagiarists on staff.
Creutz said his company initially thought publishers would be a natural fit for the service.
“We tried to target media outlets but they can’t seem to substantiate the expenditure, or they’re just not particularly concerned [about plagiarism],” Creutz said. “I’ve pitched the service what seems like over 100 times over to the New York Times and the last time was after Maureen Dowd copied [part of] that column. They basically told me, ‘Maureen is going to be fine – this will blow over’.”
Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe, however, wasn’t fine. He resigned earlier this week after an internal review, which was set off by a complaint from The Wall Street Journal, found he had plagiarized from a variety of sources.
“We’ve had a lot conversation with media outlets, particularly after a major issue comes up, but the conversation is ultimately what is the cost and whatever cost I give them, they think it’s nuts,” Creutz said.
With iThenticate, a news organization would pay between $5,000 and $10,000 per year to perform a series of random checks on articles. (Checking every article would obviously be more expensive for a large newspaper.) In today’s economic climate, that’s an expense of note, though not a crippling one. iThenticate is also probably the most expensive service out there. Competitors such as Copyscape and Docoloc charge far less, though they focus more on searching the Web, whereas iThenticate combines Web searches with access to a range of content databases.
The issue of cost cuts both ways. Having a plagiarist on staff is bad for your brand, bad for business, and a morale killer. Those too are costs. Then there’s the fact that plagiarism is proscribed in every statement of principles and ethical code you can find in journalism. Plagiarism is covered in every journalism program in operation. Journalists often talk and write about how bad it is, which makes me wonder why we find it acceptable to do almost nothing to prevent it? The general attitude towards plagiarism checking seems to be, “Let’s save our money and let readers and other people catch the culprits.”
During the course of over five years of tracking incidents of plagiarism in journalism, I can’t recall an incident of plagiarism that was exposed by the news organization that employed the perpetrator. Posner was busted because an alert reader put Shafer on the case. Jayson Blair was caught because he stole from a journalist at another paper. Ditto for Kouwe.
Along with fabrication, plagiarism is perhaps the worst sin in all of journalism, and yet we leave it up to readers, competitors, and other outside parties to let us know when we have a thief or fabulist on staff.
That would be understandable if it weren’t so easy to perform a basic authorship check on written work.
Journalism has had brief flirtations with these services. For example, in 2004, the American Journalism Review examined plagiarism detection tools and reported that the Hartford Courant had signed up for iThenticate. (A contributor to the op-ed page had been busted stealing words.)
“It’s worth the cost,” Carolyn Lumsden, the paper’s commentary editor, told the magazine. “It doesn’t catch absolutely everything, but it catches enough that you’re alerted if there’s a problem.”
Lumsden told me this week that the paper no longer uses the service.