How not to plagiarize like Jill Abramson in “Merchants of Truth”

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Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, published a book on media called Merchants of Truth. Many passages appear to be plagiarized. I’ll explain why authors do this and how you can make sure you never do.

I can already feel your outrage. Plagiarize? I would never do that! No respectable author would!

Okay then. But let’s look at why it happens anyway, because if you’re not careful, it could be you apologizing next.

What Jill Abramson did

On Twitter, Vice News Correspondent Michael C. Moynihan pointed out a bunch of passages that were nearly identical in the book and in published works — in some cases with no attribution. Vice is one of the companies Abramson critiques in the book, but there’s no denying the similarities that Moynihan posted.

Here’s a passage apparently cribbed from the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Here’s a piece remarkably similar to a passage in Time Out Magazine; the last sentence matches exactly. This passage is not mentioned in the citations at all.

Writer Ian Frisch complained of seven instances where his prose was copied closely, including this one (reader warning: this passage contains adult content and a transphobic slur):

There are many more instances just like these: Very close paraphrases rewritten in similar sequences, some noted in the endnotes, but others left without citations.

Is this plagiarism? It’s not completely clear-cut, but I think it’s over the line.

Abramson has certainly paid the price in her reputation. As I write this, her book has 79% negative reviews on Amazon and a 2-star rating. Most professionally written books are between 4 stars and 5 — I’ve never heard of a New York Times-level author getting ratings this low.

Abramson defends her practices

Abramson doesn’t agree that she plagiarized, although she does admit that she made errors. Here’s her explanation:

I was up all night going through my book because I take these claims of plagiarism so seriously. In writing Merchants of Truth, I tried above all to accurately and properly give attribution to the many hundreds of sources that were part of my research.

My book has 70 pages of footnotes, and nearly 100 source citations in the Vice chapters alone, including the New Yorker, the Columbia Journalism Review, The Ryerson Review of Journalism, and a Masters’ thesis, the sources from which Mr. Moynihan says I plagiarized.

The notes don’t match up with the right pages in a few cases and this was unintentional and will be promptly corrected. The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed.

I wouldn’t want even a misplaced comma so I will promptly fix these footnotes and quotations as I have corrected other material that Vice contested.

The book is over 500 pages. All of the ideas in the book are original, all the opinions are mine. The passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.

This is mostly in the first person, taking responsibility, but contains the passive “should have been cited.” And in interviews, like this one in Vox, her attitude is basically “I made mistakes,” not “I plagiarized.”

Sean Illing (Vox): There are indeed 70 pages of footnotes in the book, but there are problems with it —

Jill Abramson: I’m owning that. Some of these things I should have just quoted in the text. But look, I was trying to write a seamless narrative, and to keep breaking it up with “according to” qualifiers would have been extremely clunky. But in retrospect, I wish I’d done that. . . .

Sean Illing: Would you call any of this plagiarism?

Jill Abramson: No, I wouldn’t. This was completely unintentional. I mean, I have 70 pages of footnotes and I tried to credit everyone’s work as best I can. What we’re talking about here are sets of facts that I borrowed; obviously, the language is too close in some cases, but I’m not lifting original ideas. Again, I wish I had got the citation right, but it’s not an intentional theft or taking someone’s original ideas — it’s just the facts. But I’m owning it and I’m disappointed in myself for these mistakes.

What really happened here

Simplicity and honesty demands that if you use a passage directly and exactly, you put it in quotes and say where it came from. All of us learned that in school. But that sort of blatant theft is not what has happened here. What’s happened here is lax research and writing practices, not outright copying.

I agree that Jill Abramson did not intend to plagiarize. However, plagiarism is not about intent, it is about what you publish and how similar it is to someone else’s work. In this case, what Abramson has published is far too similar to other published works. And 70 pages of endnotes is no excuse — what matters is if you have the right endnotes for all the material you have cited.

To be clear, facts are not subject to copyright or plagiarism. For example, in the first passage, what McInnes wrote in The American Conservative is a fact, as is Jason Mojica’s ownership of a cafe and a video rental shop in the second passage.

However, reporting is work and deserves recognition. The appropriate thing to do when citing facts that took work to unearth is to credit the source. For example, in the second passage, you could write this:

As Jake Malooley documented in his article “Vice Cop” in Time Out magazine, Jason Mojica owned a cafe and a video rental shop in Chicago. He and two friends traveled to Chad to research what was happening in Darfur — and eventually produced the 2008 documentary Christmas in Darfur.

This is the “according to” reference that Abramson now regrets omitting. If you want to cite facts about Jason Mojica, you give credit for where the facts came from. And you also include a footnote to the original article. This does not apply to broadly known facts (you don’t have to tell us where you learned who wrote War and Peace), but it certainly applies to reporting that is primary research.

There are two reasons to cite material this way. One is to give appropriate credit. The second is to allow the readers to go read the original material and judge its truth for themselves. Stripped of citations, facts get shared and reshared with no chance to verify their truth, or whether they are cited correctly or distorted.

I’m going to speculate on what happened here. Abramson (and her researchers) found a bunch of stuff on the Web and elsewhere. They dumped it into a file. She and her team then shaped it up into a narrative. They paid insufficient attention to what was hers and what came from elsewhere. And for the sake of the narrative, they wanted to avoid all the “according to” statements. The result is a story with text that’s too similar to the the original material and sloppy sourcing.

How to avoid making this error in your own nonfiction writing

I believe that what Abramson probably did — put a bunch of material in a file and organize it into a narrative — is not the problem. I recommend this exact technique to writers myself. Some people use Evernote or Scrivener, but the basic technique is the same: put a bunch of stuff in a pile and organize it. But that is not writing, that is organizing your research. You still have to write the text.

The pile will include your own ideas and notes as well as material from other sources. Too much of your own ideas and you’re just spitballing. So you need sourced material to back up what you write.

To avoid ending up where Abramson did, though, there are two things you must do.

First, make sure you always keep the source link with every piece of researched material. This easiest way to do this is to include a link along with the actual content. This link is a reminder that the source of this material is not your own writing, and you must include a citation in the final text. When you write you can do this by including a link in online material, or a footnote or endnote in printed material.

Second, when you have organized the material and are actually writing it, pay close attention to how you treat this secondary research material. Don’t just rearrange it and drop in a few words here and there as Abramson did. Decide what facts are important. Cite those facts in your own words. Unless those facts are well known and universal, cite the source of those facts. If there was significant effort involved in finding those facts, include “according to” or “as author xxx revealed” in the text. And include the citation as a link or footnote/endnote, so your readers can verify your sources if they want.

And if you are enamored of the beautiful way your source wrote it, include it as a direct quote or block quote, just as I have done in this post.

It takes nothing away from your writing to reflect others’ reporting and, if you use it, their exact language. It makes you seem more thorough and authoritative, even if you were once the executive editor of The New York Times. And it distinguishes your own reporting and analysis from what you have sourced elsewhere, making those original contributions stand out.

Being fastidious with sources is part of the job of writing, not some extra task you just slog through or delegate at the end. Professional writers savor this chance to credit their colleagues, just as they expect to be credited when others cite them. Do this right and you’ll not only feel good about being part of the community of authors, you’ll also avoid getting dragged through the mud as Jill Abramson now is.

8 responses to “How not to plagiarize like Jill Abramson in “Merchants of Truth”

  1. I agree that sloppiness probably prevailed here and I like your solution, Josh.

    In my books, I probably overdo it with footnotes and endnotes, but my manuscripts I cite sources as follows:

    lname, fname, “article title,” month, date, year, link, retrieved date

    I want people to easily find more information on something that piques their interest. It bothers me when writers fail to include relevant source information.

    I like using short URLs as well. I can always go back to the source if need be. I have found https://archive.org to be invaluable.

  2. I color the font to remind me that the words are not mine. Once I’ve written a paraphrase or reference, I delete the colored words.

  3. Avoiding plagiarism is good. Citing references carefully is even better. Not citing references is like a scientist publishing a research study without any notes on procedure, so that no other scientist can replicate the results.

    I am currently writing a book and one of my best sources has plenty of good quotes, attributed in the text, but NO FOOTNOTES. So the only citation I can give is “Person’s Name, as quoted in Book, page x.” If there were footnotes, I would follow them back to make sure the quote is accurate and not taken out of context.

    Ideally, non-fiction should be as reproducible as good science. Of course, a lot of science is proving to be non-reproducible.

    1. When I quote someone based on a personal interview, I don’t have a citation. (Basically, any quote in one of my books without a citation is from a personal interview.) Usually you can tell, though, because it’s a case study, and I say “As Fred told me, ‘xxx’ .”

      Is it possible your source did the interviews themselves, or are they just a sloppy researcher?

      1. Josh, I appreciate your propensity to see the best in people. In this case, the quotes are from letters written in the 1940s, which must be in a historical archive somewhere. The quotes support my interpretation of events and give insight into the history, so I will use them, but I wish I could see the entire letters, not just these selected quotes.

        To the obvious question, yes, I intend to contact the author. However, my interpretation is somewhat different from his, and he might think I am writing a rebuttal, so it’s complicated.

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