This spring, Amanda Mascarelli, a freelance journalist based in Colorado, was in the process of reviewing A Sea in Flames, a book about the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by ecologist and marine conservationist Carl Safina, when she noticed something that made her suspicious.
“I started reading his book and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was quite a page-turner. His descriptions of the technical aspects of the Deepwater Horizon blowout were exceptional, and he has a strong voice with a large dose of cynicism and sharp commentary on BP and the government’s response,” Mascarelli wrote in an e-mail to CJR. “Then I was reading along, almost to page 100, when I came across a quote that sounded strangely familiar
“At first I thought, ‘Hey, that source told me the exact same thing for one of my stories!’ Then I came across another quote in the same paragraph that sounded familiar. And another. It turns out that all the quotes in that paragraph were taken straight out of one of my news stories that ran in Nature last summer. It dawned on me that he must be drawing heavily on news reports throughout much of the book.”
Indeed, Safina drew heavily on media coverage of the spill and acknowledged in his preface that his book “is the record of an event unfolding, a synthesis of personal experience, news, rumors, and the rapidly shifting perspectives about how bad things were - and how bad they were not.” Nonetheless, Mascarelli was surprised by the lack of transparency in Safina’s citation and attribution strategy. There are no citation marks or footnotes in the text and it is often unclear what information came from Safina’s own reporting versus other sources.
So Mascarelli flipped to the back of the book, where Safina has almost forty pages of endnotes, and thumbed to the page number where she found the familiar quotes. There was a reference there, complete with a website address, but not to her work for Nature. Instead, it was to an article at The Hindustan Times in India, which had re-posted Mascarelli’s material without giving her any credit.
“It turns out, the website had lifted my story straight out of Nature,” Mascarelli wrote in her e-mail to CJR. “So, that’s when it became apparent that Safina must have been doing some shoddy work in slapping this book together on a short time line. But then I grew curious - how much of this book was his work? So I started Googling random sentences from the book and found multiple cases of what I consider plagiarism.”
Plagiarism is a big word, and we don’t go that far. Safina covers his flank with his endnotes. But they are weak and insufficient given the close re-writes of some the sourced articles. Moreover, it’s doubtful readers will bother to look at the endnotes, so they would never know that most of his book rides on the hard work of others.
What Mascarelli found were three instances in which Safina had paraphrased others’ work, but in a nearly verbatim manner. The endnotes provided accurate references, but the paraphrasing was close enough to warrant quotation marks or some acknowledgment in the text that certain details were copied directly from another source. Moreover, Mascarelli found two clear-cut errors, which resulted from the close paraphrasing. She brought her grievances to Joanne Baker, her editor at Nature, for whom she was reviewing A Sea in Flames, and Baker contacted the publisher, Crown Books.
John Glusman, the vice president and executive editor there, responded in a letter. He conceded that Mascarelli was correct about the improper reference to The Hindustan Times and one of the two other errors she brought to light, and he promised to correct them in future printings. But he rejected all other charges related the misappropriation of others’ work. “We are, however, troubled by the reviewer’s broader criticism of the sourcing method we employed, and in particular, the serious allegations of plagiarism, which are unfounded ” Glusman wrote. “For each of the passages identified, there is an accurate and appropriate reference note citing a source for the passage in Mr. Safina’s 40-page reference section at the back of the book.”
As far as the errors go, CJR determined that Mascarelli was, in fact, right on both counts. In one instance, which Glusman conceded, Safina attributed quotes from two different people in an Associated Press story to one of them in this book. In the other, the rash summary of an Agence France-Presse article caused Safina to inflate the number of people in Louisiana reporting specific health problems following exposure to emulsified oil and dispersant.