Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Margaret Wente, plagiarism and misquotation?

As already discussed here, in “The Tyranny of mother’s milk”, not only does Margaret Wente sprinkle her text with un-attributed quotes, the apparent borrowing extends to surrounding material; one paragraph contains significant overlap with the words of another journalist who she does not credit. Of Wente’s sixty-four word paragraph, only a third is actual quotation –comment from McGill’s Dr. Michael Kramer in a 2009 Times article. Turns out this is problematical in more ways than one. But first, to recap that bit:

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 “The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” he says.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…“The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” Kramer says.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.”

Look at those passages closely; in Wente’s version the quotation marks slide over, shortening the quote and thereby presenting as her own prose what in Rumbelow’s article were words in quotation marks by Dr. Kramer. Should the words “neither side is being very scientific”, which move out of quotes and into Wente’s prose, have been attributed to Dr. Kramer, as they appear in The Times? Or to Ms. Rumbelow? And should the preceding prose which links the two quotes, and which is virtually identical to the 2009 article, also have been attributed to Ms. Rumbelow?

But there are other problems with Wente’s use of this material:

Rumbelow’s is a 2009 first person opinion (not a report) about the British National Health Service’s breastfeeding pamphlet, which (her article says) she received “last year”. It appears that Dr. Kramer of McGill was asked to comment on a British NHS pamphlet from 2008 (Rumbelow writes: “with my NHS leaflet in hand, I put its list of health benefits to Kramer”). But Wente, in omitting this context and inserting the material in an article about breastfeeding here, leads readers to believe the Montreal doctor views Canada’s 2011 “public health breastfeeding promotion information” as “out of date”. Like the shifting quote, is this accurate?

Worse, a quick search turns up the following article in the British Independent, in which Dr. Kramer repudiates the “misquotation” by Rumbelow. Why does Wente, on the same side of the Atlantic as Kramer, use old quotes in an opinion piece about the British NHS which he had since disavowed?

Here’s an article about the Kramer misquotation in The Independent:

"’Journalists certainly have the right to express their own opinions, but not to misquote experts they choose to interview in order to support those opinions. That sort of sensationalist journalist would not surprise me from the tabloids, but I had expected better from The Atlantic and The Times,’ Kramer said last night.

The Times quoted Kramer, who is based at McGill University, Montreal, as saying there was ‘very little evidence’ breastfeeding reduces the risk of a range of diseases from leukaemia to heart disease. Yet, what he actually said was: ‘The existing evidence suggests that breastfeeding may protect against the risk of leukaemia, lymphoma, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease and blood pressure.’ All he did concede was that we need ‘more and better studies to pursue these links’, a common cry from academics lacking in funding”.


Dr. Kramer’s published views include the following, which appeared in the Globe and Mail:

"’Our study provides the strongest evidence to date that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding makes kids smarter,’ said lead investigator Michael Kramer, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at McGill.”

So aside from Wente’s lack of attribution, there are related factual problems resulting from her methods. It’s alarming to think of how such practices might be used to provide inaccurate information.

Wente’s overlaps with Rumbelow go beyond the borrowed quotes of Dr. Kramer. But even if it were limited to this, many experts view even the use of other people’s quotes as plagiarism. (Widely reported remarks by a world leader don’t require attribution, but when a reporter or columnist seeks out and gathers more obscure material for an article, the situation seems to be different).

An article on Poynter Online about a professor whose opinion column was cancelled for one instance of un-attributed quotes is titled “Merrill’s offense was plagiarism”. Jacqueline Banaszynski, its author, holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of Missouri, and the article is co-signed by Professors Daryl Moen and George Kennedy, Professor Emeritus, journalism at Missouri, and Professor Charles Davis, Executive Director of the National Freedom of Information Center.

Discussing whether the cancellation of Merrill’s column was warranted, the experts ask whether acknowledgement and apology would have sufficed, but they are unequivocal about the offense: “the use of material gathered by another writer, without crediting that writer, is plagiarism”.

One would think that this goes double when the overlapping material extends well beyond the quotes, as it does in Wente’s article. And further, in reproducing both the same quotes and surrounding prose as Ms. Rumbleow, Wente leaves readers with an impression of Dr. Kramer’s views which contrasts with his comments in the article published in Independent and elsewhere. Might this have been avoided had Ms. Wente attributed his remarks to the older article by Rumbelow? Did she inquire about his later comments in The Independent? And, most importantly, for someone who is critical of plagiarism in others, does Ms. Wente provide adequate attribution for the overlap in prose surrounding the quotes (as well as the quotes themselves) in the 2009 Times article?

Clarification: This post has been modified to reflect the fact that Ms. Wente contacted Dr. Kramer.

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