Saturday, May 7, 2016

Margaret Wente: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed...

It began small, Blair remembered. His first instance of plagiarism was an unattributed quote taken from the Associated Press in an interview – one he was sure his editors would catch. But no one did. “Once you do something that crosses any ethical line… it is easy to go back and do it over and over,” he said.  Isabella Kwai, Duke Reporters Lab

While not comparing Margaret Wente to Jayson Blair, his reflections are still instructive. Following the 2012 Wente plagiarism saga and the latest dust up, The Globe and Mail addressed a few recent lapses. Given the history and persistence, experts like NYU Prof. Charles Seife suggested a review.  If instances like the phrase he identified are now acknowledged to have lacked proper attribution, what about significant issues identified earlier? A second look at just a few of these columns shows additional questionable prose and quotes, often from unacknowledged bloggers.  The articles suggest multiple attribution questions a review might consider (emphasis is added throughout).

For example, The Globe and Mail consistently refused to address what was described by Chris Selley as “flagrant, unambiguous plagiarism” in a column where Ms. Wente wrote this: 

A lot of celebrities are now using Twitter as a marketing tool to create an air of faux authenticity… They hire flacks to feed content into their Twitter streams and blogs. The New York Times reports that a gentleman named Broadway (not his real name) thumbs tweets for rapper 50 Cent (not his real name), who has nearly a quarter of a million followers. “He doesn't actually use Twitter,” Broadway says. “But the energy of it is all him.”

the day after Nicholas Carr wrote this on his blog ‘Rough Type’:

…a lot of celebrities have hired flacks to feed content into their Twitter streams, their blogs, and the various other online channels of faux authenticity. A gentleman named Broadway (not his real name) thumbs tweets for rapper 50 Cent (not his real name), who has nearly a quarter million pseudonymous followers... "He doesn't actually use Twitter," Broadway says ... "but the energy of it is all him."

Ms. Wente’s column had noted a NYT article about celebrity tweets, but not the prose on Carr’s blog.  Wente's article also contains material from this earlier NYT article.

Wente: "Each little update - each individual bit of social information - is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane," says new-media expert Clive Thompson. "But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting." He calls this experience "ambient awareness" - an invisible dimension floating over everyday life, like a type of ESP.

Clive Thompson, New York Times: [Social scientists call it] ... “ambient awareness”....  Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting…The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking Wente interviewed Thompson.  It's not clear why she would not simply say 'as Clive Thompson wrote in the New York Times'.   Thompson's own last sentence in the paragraph shows him interviewing Ben Haley, though Ms. Wente's version removes any reference to the media expert along with the quotation marks around a portion of the prose. Thompson’s NYT piece is called “The brave new world of digital intimacy”.  Wente refers to “a new world of digital intimacy” without citing the article.

Similarities between her columns and those in the NYT have been remarked for years. A correction obtained June 3, 2011(print edition), noted material that should have been attributed to Dexter Filkins. Like the Nicholas Carr piece, other columns contain material found on blogs. This example had originally flagged quotes identical to David Weinberger’s live blogging of Robert Putnam’s Aspen Ideas talk.  A quick second look reveals additional bits similar and/or identical to NYT and Atlantic articles.  

Clive Crook, The Atlantic, July 1, 2012:  racial disparities… are narrowing… class disparities…. are widening dramatically.  The prosperous and the poor, regardless of race, are living in increasingly separate worlds.

Wente: July 14, 2012: Racial disparities are narrowing, but class disparities are widening dramatically.  The prosperous and the poor, regardless of race, are increasingly segregated from each other.

Alexander Stille, Oct. 22, 2011, NYT:  Thus we have become both more inclusive and more elitist.

Wente: As society has become more open, inclusive and meritocratic, it has also become more elitist.

Wente writes, “The paradox of modern life (one that Mr. Putnam doesn’t deal with) is that meritocracy and equality are increasingly at odds. Referencing ‘paradox’ from Stille’s “The Paradox of the New Elite”, she appears to paraphrase his paragraphs 11 and 12 without mentioning him. In contrast, it’s interesting to see how Crook and Stille, like other good writers, easily acknowledge other authors and tell readers how they came by their information, quotes, or ideas.  

The quotes in the same column appear identical to those of David Weinberger who live blogged Robert Putnam’s presentation at Aspen Ideas for his blog.

Wente:  “We’re about to go over a cliff when it comes to social mobility,” he says. “Social mobility and opportunity… are going to plummet.”

Weinberger “… we’re about to go over a cliff when it comes to social mobility…Social mobility and opportunity are going to plummet.”

Wente:  “Over the last two decades or so, white kids coming from less educated, less well-off backgrounds are more and more going through life with only one parent at home,” he says... “There’s a growing class gap among American youth among all the predictors of success in life.”

Weinberger:  “Over the last two decades or so, white kids coming from less educated, less well-off backgrounds are more and more going through life with only one parent at home.”“There’s a growing class gap among American youth among all the predictors of success in life.”

Wente:  This gap shows up in test scores

Weinberger: All this shows up in reading and math test scores

Wente: This gap is way worse than it was in the 1960s

Weinberger: it’s way worse than in the ’60s

Wente: As Mr. Putnam said at Aspen, “I happen to think that hugs and time are more important than money.” (He added that money is important too.)

Weinberger: “I happen to think that hugs and time are more important than money, but money is important too”.

A recording reveals Putnam’s actual words differ slightly – as expected with live blogging. Only a few remarks appear in quotes, most in prose.  That Wente reproduces the same quotes verbatim makes it unlikely they came from another source, as his selection and wording are unique. While an excellent summary, he warns it is inexact, advising attribute it to me, and don't use it commercially without my permission”. Does Wente have a responsibility to tell readers where she obtained these quotes and credit the blog on which they appeared? 

Because while Weinberger’s blog was reliable, this was not the case with the fake protester, "John", apparently picked up two links back from a blog post by Kenneth Anderson that had provided the meat between thick slices of borrowed quotes in an article on the Occupy protests. It was obvious that "John" was not a protester on the sites where his quotes and prose appeared.  If plagiarism is a capital sin, fabulism, even if the result of “sloppiness”, is also deadly. A review might reveal if there are similar characters in Ms. Wente's previous articles, or if further bits of prose and quotes in the same column warrant address.

Jay Lindsay, AP:  Boston resident Sarvenaz Asasy, 33… with a master's degree in international human rights — and about $60,000 in student loans…Asasy said the reason there are few jobs in her field, which aims to help the poor get food and education, is the government focuses on helping corporations..."They're cutting all the grants, and they're bailing out the banks,"…"I don't get it."

 Wente:  Boston resident Sarvenaz Asasy, 33, who has a master’s degree in international human rights, along with $60,000 in student loans. She dreamed of doing work to help the poor get food and education. But now she can’t find a job in her field. She blames the government. “They’re cutting all the grants, and they’re bailing out the banks. I don’t get it.”

While using facts like these may be less troubling…

Derek Thompson, The Atlantic:  (hed) 48% of Americans Live in Homes Receiving Government Benefits…half of all income sent to Washington is sent to the elderly, sick and disabled, or to their service providers.

Wente:  half all income sent to Washington is redistributed to the elderly, sick and disabled, or to those who serve them…nearly half the country lives in a household that’s getting some sort of government benefit…

…other material from Kenneth Anderson (who Wente in this case names without mentioning the site where the work appeared) includes additional ideas and specific language:

Kenneth Anderson:  that model no longer works

Wente:  this social model no longer works

Kenneth Anderson:  … those who saw themselves entitled to a white collar job in the Virtue Industries of government and non-profits – the helping professions, the culture industry, the virtueocracies, the industries of therapeutic social control, as Christopher Lasch pointed out in his final book, The Revolt of the Elites.

Wente:  the virtueocracy – the class of people who expect to find self-fulfillment… in non-profit or government work, by saving the planet, rescuing the poor and regulating the rest of us. They are what the social critic Christopher Lasch called the “new class” of "therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy."

Anderson (Times Literary Supplement, 1995, linked on the first blog):  They… sought jobs as therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracies.

Anderson is the exception.  Other bloggers whose work turns up in Wente’s columns are not identified (even if they’re Nicholas Carr).  Here’s a lesser known one:

Daniel Bennett, Sept. 4, 2009: While I believe that some research contributes to the advancement of society (e.g. engineering, sciences, medical, etc), I suspect that much of what is being published in obscure academic journals contributes little… a higher education system that pawned off the responsibility of educating them in favor of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research (which the majority of undergraduates are not involved in) that for the most part, doesn't matter.

Wente, Sept. 18, 2009: Of course some research, especially in the sciences and medicine, matters a great deal to the advancement of society. But a vast amount of it - especially in the humanities and social sciences - does not. Richard Vedder, a leading U.S. critic, has argued that the higher education system has pawned off the responsibility of educating students "in favour of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research (which the majority of undergraduates are not involved in) that for the most part, doesn't matter."

Again, similar and identical prose, and confusion where Ms. Wente attributes to Vedder what appears to be Bennett’s prose (unless Bennett failed to quote Vedder).  

As noted before, Wente often begins with anecdotes suggesting what follows are her own thoughts, and often reproduces significant portions of what an expert says without quotes before providing the required punctuation.  

Wente:  Take my old stomping ground, English Lit. When last I looked, nobody was clamouring for another book on Moby-Dick . Yet as demand goes down, supply goes up. Over the past five decades, the "productivity" of scholars in the fields of languages and literature has increased from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year. Who reads them? For the most part, hardly anyone.

In "Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own", Mark Bauerlein also mentions Moby Dick, adding, “Nobody off-campus declared, “We don’t have enough books on Walt Whitman…”.  He observes: “Demand goes down and supply goes up”. And in The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 20, 2009), he wrote: …over the past five decades, the "productivity" of scholars in the fields of languages and literature had increased hugely: from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year… who reads those books… fewer people than ever before. 

Later, Wente concludes:  students count for more than articles in unread quarterlies.   Mark BauerleinStudents count more than articles in quarterlies. 

And in another column, Wente had reproduced material found on the website of writer Suzanne Barston, who had snagged an interview with Joan Wolf (something one imagines Wente could have done).  Wente refers to Barston’s interview as something Wolf “told one group of moms”, a curious description.  Barston is a writer who, according to her website, is “former Editor-in-Chief of Los Angeles Family Magazine, and a freelance writer specializing in parenting, women’s interest, and science/health topics and author of Bottled Up”.

Joan Wolf as interviewed by Suzanne Barston:…breastfeeding is part of what I call total motherhood, the belief that mothers are both capable of and responsible for preventing any imaginable risk to their babies and children… we are making mothers crazy today by telling them that they have the power, if they are willing to put forth the effort and make sacrifices, to prevent all sorts of bad things from happening to their kids. 

Wente: "Breastfeeding is part of what I call total motherhood, the belief that mothers are both capable of and responsible for preventing any imaginable risk to their babies and children," she told one group of moms. "We are making mothers crazy by telling them that they have the power, if they are willing to put forth the effort and make sacrifices, to prevent all sorts of bad things from happening to their kids." 

In the same column, material that had appeared in a Sunday Times feature by Helen Rumbelow is not cited, and again Ms. Wente’s quotation marks are partial.

Wente:  One of the world’s most authoritative sources of breastfeeding research is Michael Kramer, professor of pediatrics at McGill University. “The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” he says. The trouble is that the breastfeeding lobby is at war with the formula milk industry, and neither side is being very scientific. “When it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational.”

Rumbelow: …one of the world’s most authoritative sources of breastfeeding research… Michael Kramer, professor of paediatrics at McGill University, Montreal.…“The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” Kramer says. The trouble is, he said, that the breastfeeding lobby is at war with the formula milk industry, and “neither side is being very scientific ... when it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational”.

While there are other examples, the five articles reprised above all contain multiple issues and involve blogs from which material appears to be reproduced often verbatim, and where in most cases the blogs are not cited.  In other instances, quotes appear around only a portion of the text.   The plagiarism incident in 2012 also involved multiple sources in one column. 

The Globe agreed an eight word phrase from Daniel Engber’s Slate article about the research of Roy Baumeister should have been attributed.  Here’s an earlier Wente column on the same topic.  While they are cited, parts of Baumeister/Tierney's writings appear outside of quotation marks.  

Wente:  Most social scientists look for the causes of social failure outside the individual: deprivation, oppression, discrimination and so on. “Searching for external factors is often more comfortable for everyone,” the authors write, “particularly for the many academics who worry that they risk the politically incorrect sin of ‘blaming the victim’ by suggesting that people’s problems might arise from causes inside themselves.” Social problems can also seem easier to fix than character defects...

Baumeister/Tierney, here: Most social scientists look for causes of misbehavior outside the individual: poverty, relative deprivation, oppression... Searching for external factors is often more comfortable for everyone, particularly for the many academics who worry that they risk the politically incorrect sin of “blaming the victim” by suggesting that people’s problems might arise from causes inside themselves. Social problems can also seem easier than character defects to fix...

Wente: “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time,” concluded a team of researchers quoted in the book. This failure contributes not only to obesity, but to high divorce rates, domestic violence, crime, addiction and a host of other social problems.

Baumeister/Tierney: “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time,” they concluded, pointing to the accumulating evidence of its contribution to high divorce rates, domestic violence, crime, and a host of other problems.

So while a correction was offered for the phrase "a muscle that can be exercised to exhaustion", both Mr. Engber and Globe readers may be left puzzled.  Unaware of past plagiarism, Engber may wonder what gives?  Those aware of significant past plagiarism may wonder why similar corrections were not offered in regard to articles like those above.  Is using material from bloggers versus Slate or the New York Times more acceptable?  Are standards consistent?  Are past incidents ignored?  Is there need for investigation?  If so, what kind?

 Vice reported in 2012 on the review carried out in regard to Jonah Lehrer:

"I did not speak to any of [the writers whose work was suspected of being copied]," said Seife, on the phone from his office in New York. "It seemed to me like a red herring. What if the writer you're contacting is a friend of the plagiarist? I think you should be able to judge whether something is plagiarism on its merits..."


I tend to agree.  Quite apart from individual authors, there’s a responsibility to readers and to the public trust. Sloppy standards or plagiarism? The questions remain.

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