The New Yorker’s plagiarism blunder

"The problem is the degree to which you are a victim of your own success"

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Comment “Rough Forecasts,” published in the April 14 issue of The New Yorker, contains this quote from the late chemist F. Sherwood Rowland:

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

Science journalists and longtime readers of the magazine might have arched an eyebrow. The Rowland quote had been taken word for word, and without attribution, from an article Paul Brodeur had written decades before about Rowland’s research into chlorofluorocarbons and the dwindling ozone layer. Titled “Annals of Chemistry: In the Face of Doubt,” Brodeur’s piece was published on June 9, 1986. By The New Yorker.

The New Yorker had effectively plagiarized itself.

Jon Swan, a former factchecker at the magazine in the fifties and senior editor at CJR for 20 years, wrote a letter to New Yorker editor David Remnick to complain. Receiving almost no response, he wrote again:

Dear Mr. Remnick,

Six days ago, on April 8, I received acknowledgment that my letter to the editor (enclosed) regarding Elizabeth Kolbert’s Comment piece (“Rough Forecasts,” April 14th) had been received by the magazine. I have not, however, received word from the letters editor that it will be published. My letter informed the letters editor that no mention had been made of Paul Brodeur’s previous and extensive reporting in The New Yorker on chemist F. Sherwood Rowland findings concerning the effects of chlorofluorocarbons on the atmosphere—this despite the fact that Ms. Kolbert’s article includes a quote by Rowland that is taken, word for word and without attribution, from Brodeur’s June 9, 1986, article, “Annals of Chemistry: In the Face of Doubt.” The quote should, of course, have been introduced as follows: “As Rowland was quoted by Paul Brodeur in an article that appeared in this magazine in 1986, ‘What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true.’”

I was a fact checker at The New Yorker from 1956-1960 and later senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, from 1974 -1994. In my day (and I am reliably informed today), fact checkers were and are required to verify all statements either by calling the source or by finding a reliable published record of it. If a fact checker had tracked down the source of Ms. Kolbert’s quote by Rowland, he or she would have inevitably found it in Brodeur’s 1986 article. One would then expect attribution to be given to the source. But surely the checker is not alone at fault for this breach of journalistic ethics. Editor and author are involved in the process. Did the editor ask for verification? Did the author know where the quote had originated? She must have.

I would appreciate a reply from you regarding what I consider to be a serious breach of Journalistic ethics.

I should add that I admired Ms. Kolbert’s two-part essay on extinctions. Indeed, I wrote her a letter some ten days ago expressing my appreciation of her reporting.


Jon Swan

New Yorker factchecking director Peter Canby emailed him back on April 14:

Mr. Swan, thank you for your email. The Sherwood quote has escaped its source to such a degree that it is not typically attributed to the Paul Brodeur piece.

Kolbert tells me that in the process of closing that piece, she and her editor tried to come up with attribution and were unable to find a clear source. They themselves were unaware that the quote originated with Brodeur.

Thank you for your vigilance. Always nice to hear from a former New Yorker checker.
Best regards,
Peter Canby

Yes, Canby’s excuse for failing to attribute a quote was that it had somehow “escaped its source.”

Meanwhile Brodeur himself had noticed the error and had written to Remnick asking for an Editor’s Note to be published attributing the Rowland quote to his article. Canby wrote back to him too:

The problem is the degree to which you are a victim of your own success. That quote is so widely used without attribution that it has effectively escaped its authorship.

After citing the same three examples he had emailed to Swan, Canby continued:

Over the course of the few hours we had to close that piece, Kolbert, Kolbert’s editor, and the checker, all looked unsuccessfully for the source of the quote. The list of unattributed uses from responsible institutions is much longer than what’s listed above and only if you put your name next to it does the quote’s provenance become apparent. But that’s a retroactive discovery, and since no one here recognized the quote as coming from your piece, that wasn’t an option at the time. I hope this makes sense to you. It was a pleasure to hear from you and I hope you are well. Peter Canby
If only Brodeur’s article was more obscure and he wasn’t “a victim of his own success,” perhaps then The New Yorker’s factcheckers might have been able to cite his work.

Unsurprisingly, Brodeur was less than pleased. You can read his reaction in an article he wrote for The Huffington Post.

In a second letter to Remnick, Brodeur asked him to respond directly about whether he approved of Brodeur’s suggested Editor’s Note. So far, there’s been no reply.

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , , ,