UPI shirks responsibility

Raeburn takes wire to task for cribbing from Science News

The plagiarism, or problematic paraphrasing, parade continued on Thursday as several reporters from Science News complained on Facebook that the wire service UPI had cribbed their stories.

Reporting on the charges, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn laid out three examples of passages from Science News articles that UPI reporters loosely rewrote and included in their own pieces. Raeburn contacted UPI’s executive editor, John Hendel, seeking an explanation, and received the following response:

Thanks for your note. We were unaware that the article in question was so close to the sciencenews.org item, which was credited as the source. After it was brought to our attention, we have rewritten the article, still with appropriate attribution to sciencenews.org. Please be assured there was no intention of not crediting another writer’s work. Thanks again and regards—

Frustrated by Hendel’s dismissive reply, Raeburn wrote back to say that merely rewriting the story was insufficient. He asked how often UPI’s reporters relied on light paraphrasing of others’ work, and what steps UPI was taking to prevent the practice. Indeed, Raeburn noted, Science News staffers had accused the wire service of similar piracy last year and received the same “whoops-we-didn’t-mean-to” reply from Hendel.

“Our writers feel that what UPI is doing goes too far,” Science News’s managing editor, Matt Crenson, wrote in an email to Raeburn. “These UPI stories often lift fairly long stretches (whole sentences, or nearly whole sentences) directly from Science News stories, which could be considered plagiarism.”

In one of three examples of misappropriation that Raeburn cited, UPI did credit Science News, but Raeburn called the attribution inadequate, arguing that it did not “excuse the UPI story’s close paraphrase of the Science News story. If anything, it makes clear this was no coincidence.”

Unfortunately, UPI appears to be unwilling to take responsibility for seems to be a systemic problem. In second post at the Tracker, Raeburn posted Hendel’s reply to the follow-up email he’d sent. Wrote Hendel:

I didn’t recall that the earlier instance was from the same publication. When such instances are brought to our attention we respond as quickly as possible and appropriately. The more recent instance is from a different writer than the April 2011 article. As we do when such problems are pointed out to us, we have spoken with the writer to stress that that is not our practice and we strive to make it so such issues don’t arise again. He has expressed remorse, which we believe is genuine.

If we find there is a trend of continuing violations along this line (generally if they happen, they are found in the editing process), we sever relationships with that stringer.

We do try very hard to avoid this and our writers are reminded often to appropriately attribute the source of the information, whether a journal, news release or another publication. It is an ongoing process for us to watch for this.

So, basically, recurrent offenses from the same writer are a problem, but recurrent offenses from the wire service as a whole are not. Rejecting Hendel’s explanation for a second time, Raeburn wrote:

That’s not enough. It is not enough to rewrite stories or to speak to the writer. Management has an obligation to review editorial practices from top to bottom, to institute tough new policies regarding plagiarism, and to apologize to news organizations from which it has borrowed copy. Science News articles are not press releases to be lightly rewritten by UPI reporters and passed off as original.

He’s absolutely right. Word-for-word paraphrasing is a form of plagiarism, and it’s high time that editors and writers acknowledge that.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , ,