Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

An oil-spill book relies too heavily on cut-and-paste work

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.

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.”

There are cases where the cut-and-paste work cannot be explained by a desire to accurately convey public health information, however. Take another passage Mascarelli found, which reads, “In Gulf Shores, Alabama, thick oil washes up at a state park, coating the white sand with a thick, red stew. ‘This makes me sick,’ says one resident, her legs and feet streaked with crude.” The AP article Safina cites in the endnotes goes like this:

In Gulf Shores, Ala., boardwalks leading to hotels were tattooed with oil from beachgoers’ feet. A slick hundreds of yards long washed ashore at a state park, coating the white sand with a thick, red stew… ‘This makes me sick,’ said Rebecca Thomasson of Knoxville, Tenn., her legs and feet smeared with brown streaks of crude.

“A thick, red stew”? Legs “streaked with crude”? These are not standard medical terms. They are the journalistic stylings and gathered quotes of two AP reporters that Safina unfairly appropriated by forgoing quotation marks or a direct attribution in his text. And this isn’t even the most egregious example. Compare the following passage from Safina’s book and the Los Angeles Times article upon which it is based.

Here’s Safina:

More than a day after the explosion, Stone was finally back on land. “Before we were allowed to leave, we were lined up and made to take a drug tests. It was only then, 28 hours after the explosion, that I was given access to a phone, and was allowed to call my wife and tell her I was OK.”

Then, a few days later, a representative of rig owner Transocean asked him to sign a document “stating I was not injured, in order to get $5,000 for the loss of my personal possessions.” He declined to sign.

Here’s the Times:

Some 28 hours after the explosion, Stone made it to land. “Before we were allowed to leave, we were lined up and made to take a drug test. It was only then, 28 hours after the explosion, that I was given access to a phone, and was allowed to call my wife and tell her I was OK,’’ he said.

Days later, Stone said, a representative of rig operator Transocean asked him to sign a document “stating I was not injured, in order to get $5,000 for the loss of my personal possessions.’’ He declined to sign and hired a lawyer.

With such close rewriting, one has to ask, even with the endnote, is the author really giving credit where credit is due? The answer is clearly, no. At one point in the book, Safina bases nearly 400 words of text, fully one page, on a single article by Craig Pittman, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Very few of the words come from Safina, who basically cut, pasted, and trimmed Pittman’s 1,135-word story down to size. I sent Pittman the passage from Safina’s book, which was the first he’d seen of it, and asked him to compare it to his article. After “talking it over” with his editor, he sent the following reaction by e-mail:

As someone who’s written three non-fiction books (Paving Paradise, Manatee Insanity & the forthcoming The Scent of Scandal) that involved both original reporting and researching prior news coverage by other people, I know how tempting it is to do a little cut-and-paste as a way to save time and make deadline. It’s so much easier than rewriting things in your own words. But it’s also easier than ever to get nailed for plagiarism these days if you pull something like that. In my books, my general practice has been to reword things and, if quotes are involved, make it clear that they didn’t originate with me—for instance, by saying such-and-so “told a reporter” or “said to the Miami Herald”—as well as giving detailed source info in the end notes.

When asked about Pittman’s reaction, Safina expressed surprise and suggested that far from appropriating Pittman’s work, he had given it new legs. “It’s not being passed off as mine,” he said. “It’s being referenced to him. I mean, how many people read the St. Petersburg Times? How many people know that article exists? I included his name, the title of the article, the publication, and the date [in an endnote]. Why would anybody be dismayed that his article has a little extra life by being incorporated into a book, when most people have totally forgotten that article?”

I asked Safina how many people would realistically turn to the back of the book and look up the endnote to find Pittman’s name. I suggested that a much fairer, more transparent, and more journalistically honest strategy would have been to include a brief, “according to an article by….” in the text itself.

“I agree with you. I could have done that,” Safina replied. “It is a matter of opinion as to whether it is fairer. I can tell you that there is nothing dishonest about anything in my approach or my intent in the book.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Safina stressed that, “for any referenced material that seems to you too close to verbatim for your comfort despite the endnote references (one person’s “too close” is another’s fidelity to source matter), there is a lot of material and a lot of wordcraft that is quite original.” He added, that he “often” did cite news outlets directly in the text, which is true, though it wasn’t often enough. At one point, he bases more than three whole pages of text on a series of interviews that Mike Williams, a crewmember on the Deepwater Horizon, gave to CBS’s 60 Minutes talking about his escape from the burning platform. It’s a captivating narrative, one that others writing about the spill, including Antonia Juhasz, used. But in her book, Black Tide, Juhasz explains in the text that the story came from an interview with 60 Minutes. In over three pages, Safina couldn’t find the space.

“There are other considerations that are on my mind while I am writing,” he said when I asked about Juhasz’s approach. “One is I feel like I am mainly working for the reader, and if the look of the text seems like it’s going to get burdened with extra quotes, or extra attributions, or will break a sense of trying to put the reader in the scene and create a mood, that factors into what strokes I am trying to either point on or not put on the page.”

Glusman, the vice president and executive editor at Crown Books, made a similar point about the stylistic decision to forgo footnotes in his letter to Nature.

Still, it’s fair to assume that most reporters would rather be referenced directly in the text. They work hard and they deserve the credit. I take Safina at his word when he says that he “was trying to be a honest broker and trying to be fair to the sources,” but it’s not hard to understand why hard-working journalists like Mascarelli and Pittman would take umbrage at the way he appropriated their work.

Heavy lifting from news articles has a long history in nonfiction book writing, and Safina is not the only author to have relied too heavily upon it under deadline, but it has grown much more common in the digital age, with blogs and websites of all sorts re-posting the primary reporting of professional news outlets. It has also grown easier to catch, however, and in the business, journalists still use an old-fashioned expression when criticizing this type of cut-and-paste work.

Safina’s book may have a lot of admirable qualities—including wry criticism of the government and the oil industry’s response to the Gulf oil spill—but too much of it “smells like glue.”

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