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.
“We had a really good deal with them when we first signed up because we were the first newspaper to do so,” she said via e-mail. “And they were a great service. But then iThenticate wanted us to sign a complicated multipage legal contract. Maybe that’s what they do with universities (their primary client). But we weren’t interested in such entanglements. We haven’t used it since, and we haven’t had any problems with op-eds lately. Hope our luck continues.”
The paper caused itself some very bad luck last year when it was caught repeatedly stealing articles from competitors and slapping Courant bylines on the work. It was sued as a result. (Lumsden’s section was not involved in this incident.)
So, aside from academic and scientific journals, is anyone in publishing checking for plagiarism before an article runs? One big iThenticate client is Demand Media. Yes, the company that has been derided as a “content farm” checks every single article for plagiarism. That’s around 1 million checks per year. Demand has even integrated iThenticate into its content management system.
It seems the organizations that turn their noses up at the quality of work produced by Demand Media can’t be bothered to spend a few thousand dollars a year in order to perform random checks. (Note that a policy of random checks helps foster a more careful approach by reporters, since they never know when their stuff will get checked.)
For Demand Media, a plagiarism check is an essential part of being an online publisher hell bent on dominating search results.
“With an online content publisher like Demand Media, duplication of content is going to kill your page rank with search engines,” Creutz said. “So Google will punish Demand if they have fifty of the same article.”
They also don’t want to pay a writer for an article that has already appeared somewhere else. Perhaps their reasons for using a plagiarism detection service aren’t the same as for The New York Times, but they’re no less valid. At its core, the service is part of Demand’s quality control.
I’m not suggesting a subscription to one of these services is a foolproof strategy. It’s not. A great start, an essential tool to have, a good deterrent—yes, all of those things. Important things. Along with utilizing technology, editors should be trained to spot the telltale signs of a thief or fabulist. I’ll offer some actionable advice for editors and writers in next week’s column, so please share any relevant tips, links or advice in the comments or via e-mail at craig at craigsilverman.ca.
For now, though, anyone considering making plagiarism detection a part of their quality control procedure should read the 2007 research by Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff, a professor of Media and Computing at Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin. She tested several services and offers an assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. No doubt things have changed since then, but her research, which is also summarized here, is a good starting point.
Certainly, additional advice and tools can be brought to bear in order to root out plagiarists before they publish. But if we’re not willing to invest time, money, and attention to prevent one of the great sins of our profession—something that can tar an organization for years—then perhaps we should stop acting as if having a plagiarist on staff is such a shocking turn of events.
Correction of the Week
“Regarding a phrase in our obituary of Dick Francis (15 February, page 36), a reader writes: ‘The concept of an ‘unauthorised autobiography’ is an interesting one!’” – The Guardian