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.
Elsewhere, the hasty, cut-and-paste strategy caused confusion about the source of information. For example, in a paragraph about University of Georgia scientist Samantha Joye, who found that oxygen levels around undersea oil plumes declined following the spill, Safina copies the following sentence from an Associate Press story: “In an e-mail, Joye calls her findings ‘the most bizarre-looking oxygen profiles I have ever seen anywhere.’” The text implies that Joye sent the e-mail to Safina; readers would have to look up the endnote and then actually read the AP article to know otherwise.
“Yes, I hear what you’re saying about that,” Safina conceded when I pointed out this passage during an interview (he did not have a copy of the book with him), though he defended the clarity of his sourcing overall. “I think it’s pretty clear where people are saying things to me. And where they are not saying things to me, the reference section is the guide to where those things come from,” he said.
The problem is, it’s a rough guide at best. I reviewed the endnotes for the first 150 pages of the 400-page book, and found more than half a dozen instances where references were missing or where Safina had cited blogs or websites that were re-reporting others’ material, rather than the original news stories.
These are just careless oversights, however. The larger concern is the general reliance on other reporters’ work with only an endnote for attribution. Even where articles are cited, the paraphrasing is often so close to the original writing that Safina should be using quotation marks or at least a polite, “according to ” in the book’s text.
For example, Mascarelli pointed out one instance in which Safina listed the health effects of a particular chemical in the dispersant Corexit, writing, “Also it caused breathing difficulties, skin irritation, physical weakness and unsteadiness, sluggishness, convulsions, birth defects, and fewer offspring in mammals.” The Agence France-Presse article that Safina cited listed the effects in the same order, writing, “Other ill effects noted by the [Centers for Disease Control] were breathing difficulties, skin irritation, physical weakness and unsteadiness, sluggishness, and convulsions, as well as birth defects and fewer offspring in mammals.”
A quick visit to the 2-butoxyethanol page at the CDC’s Toxic Substances Portal, reveals these are indeed the symptoms of exposure, but the fashion in which the AFP ordered them is unique. Safina justified copying the list on the grounds of accuracy. “I was trying to be as faithful as possible to the earlier references where I got it, because if you start paraphrasing symptoms, you can make mistakes that give the wrong impression,” he said. “And the same is more or less true with how I used most of those things. I tried to stay pretty faithful to where I got the material and show people exactly where it was from.”