In May 2003, a young reporter at the New York Times handed in his resignation to paper. The reporter, Jayson Blair, had already earned a reputation at the paper for inaccuracy, but it was the weeks prior that he had become the subject of plagiarism accusations that he had been unable to answer.
In the investigation that would follow, some 36 of his 73 stories would be deemed “suspect”, meaning they contained elements likely plagiarized from other sources. The scandal grew so large that, a mere month later, it claimed two more careers, those of two of the top editors at the paper, one of whom who was a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Though the purge was largely viewed as appropriate, it did little to repair the damage to the once-prestigious publication’s reputation. What was once a bastion of great American journalism had become mired in accusations of fraud and dishonesty, a problem they are still battling today.
However, the New York Times is not alone in this horror story. News outlets of all types have fallen to the specter of plagiarism. As more and more blogging outlets begin accepting guest posts and pay bloggers to write for them, the risk of such a scandal striking a blogging organization only rises.
It makes sense for blog editors to take a moment to ponder the risks and take reasonable steps to protect themselves against such a scandal. It only takes one bad writer with one ripped article to destroy years worth of reputation and relationship building. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent what happened at the NYT from happening to you. One just has to be willing to take a few, simple precautions.
As we discussed previously, the law offers a site a great deal of protection whenever works are posted to it at the sole direction of its users, such as with comments.
However, the law is very different when it comes to dealing with works that you have editorial control over. You are no longer an intermediary, but a participant, even if only in a small way.
In most cases, your site no longer qualifies for DMCA safe harbor protection regarding such works. If someone decided to sue they could easily go after the editor/owner as well as actual author, especially if it can be shown profit was derived from the plagiarism or the editors were reckless in their duties.
More likely, but almost equally scary, is that the site itself can be subject to a DMCA notice, possibly taking the entire server offline until the work is removed and the plagiarism dealt with. This can cause hours, even days of downtime before the host restores the cleaned up site.
What it all amounts to is a giant legal headache that is best avoided if at all possible. Taking bloggers into your employ is, as with any profession that deals with creative works, a legal risk that must be weighed and mitigated against.
As the NYT case illustrates, often the worst repercussions of a plagiarism scandal are not legal, but professional. Though copyright infringement may be viewed as less of an offense than it was years ago, plagiarism, especially by a professional organization, is still viewed as a cardinal sin.
It only takes one plagiarism scandal to call an entire organization into question. It is considered, by most, a breach of honesty and all media depends on audience trust in order to thrive. That distrust also expands to the other writers and editors of an organization, even if they had nothing to do with the plagiarism itself.
Furthermore, since such scandals are almost always hot topics, it is almost a certainty that, should one break out, it will be widely reported on by others in the field. Such accusations, once shown to have merit, rarely go unnoticed.
For most media organizations, including group blogs and other new media, a plagiarism scandal is a time bomb waiting to go off, set to derail everything they’ve been working for.
It is up to the editors and owners to diffuse the bomb before it goes off.
Mitigating the Risk
Fortunately, in this connected and searchable world, there are simple ways to mitigate against this possibility. The easiest of which is to simply look for it.
However, looking for it can mean any number of things. On the most basic level, it can mean punching key phrases from a piece into Google or another search engine, looking for plagiarism that way, or it can mean using an advanced anti-plagiarism tool, such as what college professors have used for years to detect plagiarism in submitted essays.
One service that is making a push to reach the blogger market is iPlagiarismCheck. They accept submitted files, in Word, HTML, RTF, text or PDF format and compare them against the Internet as well as print articles. It’s most basic service, a one-time check for $5 is a bit steep, but their unlimited checks for one year for $65 is less than half the cost of their nearest comparable competitor and well within the reach of most blog editors (Read my review on iPlagiarismCheck).
Another service, Copyscape, as expanded their offerings to include premium searches for a small fee. Those searches are as low as five cents each (minimum $5 start up) and search only the Internet via Google. However, they do offer easy copy and paste searching, great for checking blog posts, and generally return very fast results, compared to academic services which can take a few hours.
However, both services can bring a form of plagiarism detection traditionally only available to large corporations such as universities and major newspapers. They can be used either before a post goes live, which would be ideal, or soon after in hopes of finding such plagiarism before someone else does. They can even be used to spot check past and current submissions, instead of checking every single work submitted.
But even more important than checking for such plagiarism is thinking about it before hiring a blogger or other writer and always being sure to hire reputable writers from legitimate sources. A writer who has a long career and good references is much less likely to plagiarize than an unknown who was simply the lowest bidder.
Furthermore, it is important to write in a plagiarism guarantee into the contract and have the author indemnify you against all such claims, meaning they would take responsibility for any loses due to such claims. Though that might only help to guard against the legal ramifications that come with having a plagiarist on staff, it gives most would-be plagiarists a pause to think, decreasing the likelihood they will copy and paste their works from somewhere else.
Simply put, the only thing better than catching plagiairsm before it goes live is stopping a plagiarist before he or she starts copying. If you offer sincere consequences and a realistic chance a plagiarist will get caught, very few will be willing to take a chance and the odds of seeing plagiarism on your site go down drastically.
The easiest way to avoid being involved in a plagiarism scandal is, and always has been, to write everything yourself and be careful with your words. However, in many cases, that is simply not practical.
Though the vast majority of writers, paid and otherwise, are legitimate and do not plagiarize, the risks are simply too great to ignore. Though the odds of having a plagiarist on staff are slim, even among larger companies, but the fact that it only takes one to severely damage your organization should give any editor reason to be concern.
Fortunately, a few simple precautions can go a great distance to mitigating those risks. Though every organization is going to have to decide for themselves what is appropriate and practical, simply ignoring the potential dangers and hoping never to get bit is not a viable long-term strategy.
Though a few writers may object to having their work scanned for plagiarism, feeling that it is a violation of their trust, such scans are rapidly becoming a reality for most professional writers, including those in newspapers, magazines and, increasingly, in book publishing.
With the technology now inexpensive enough to be available to even the smaller blog organizations and other Web-based media companies, it makes perfect sense for them to apply those tools to the degree they see fit.
Simply put, it doesn’t matter if you’re the New York Times or an upstart blog, if your readers can’t trust you, they will not listen to what you have to say and that can only hurt the bottom line in the long run.