A wholly original sort of “mea culpa”
What do a review of Mammoth High School’s production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” and some of Dr. Frank Romero’s recent “From the Supervisor’s Desk” columns have in common? Plagiarism, apparently.
Not long after Romero was dismissed last year by the Mammoth Unified School District Board of Education, in part for columns he allegedly pulled (in part or in whole) from other sources, yours truly went to see a production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” and the next day wrote a quickie review that ran in The Sheet.
While cobbling together the piece, I grabbed several lines of background on the play, an obscure 1942 work by Thornton Wilder, from Wikipedia and included them as background, neglecting to point out they had come from an outside source.
This apparently set off some Romero supporters who apparently don’t like The Sheet, but were seemingly lying in wait for this review, and seized upon the glaring omission, taking me and publisher Jack Lunch to task for being equally egregious plagiarists as Dr. Romero.
One such supporter, a self-described “educator,” wrote us and the Mammoth Times a particularly acerbic, though no less pithy, letter (unsigned) that also ripped The Sheet as being a “gossip rag” that essentially exists largely for the intent to engage in character assassination of those it doesn’t favor.
From the tone of the letter, you’d think I’d committed a journalistic transgression that ranks me alongside infamous writers such as Stephen Glass and Jason Blair. Since the letter was sent, Lunch has been getting hammered by others from this subset of our community. Why was Romero fired (in part) for plagiarism and I haven’t been? An interesting question. Am I as guilty of plagiarism as Romero? Another interesting question.
We gave it serious discussion and decided the only appropriate thing to do is examine the situation and respond. I’m not used to writing about myself, so bear with me. Since a lot of the letter’s vitriol was directed at me, this one’s falls in my lap whether I like it or not. And I don’t, but I’ll soldier on.
Taking the second question first … am I guilty of plagiarism? The dictionary definition is plain enough, and following it to the letter, it appears I may have. I did use and rework the background material. Fair enough.
That being said, I have a modest defense to present on my own behalf. The letter points out, correctly so, that Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has copyright conditions. That’s true, but not in all cases on all pages. Since it’s loaded with material uploaded from authors (known and unknown) all over the world, certain parts are copyrighted where applicable and others are available under a form of “fair use.”
I’ve spent a lot of time doing research on the site, dating back to its earliest appearances on the Internet, and part of knowing how to navigate the site also involves knowing what’s copyrighted and what’s not.
According to the Wikipedia Creative Common Deed governing this particular page, “You are free: to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to Remix — to adapt the work … Under the following conditions: Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor; Share Alike — If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same, similar or a compatible license.”
No original authors are listed for the information on the “Skin of Our Teeth” page (apparently the text was compiled by unknown writers from unattributable sources). If anything my failure was simply stating that the sections used were pulled from Wikipedia in general, since they are not copyrighted.
Even if I had retooled the sections in question, I would still have had to pull the background information from somewhere. “The Skin of Our Teeth” isn’t a part of popular culture that one can readily reference in the back of one’s mind, such as “Star Wars.” Even Wilder’s “Our Town” is easier to describe for readers, due to its widespread recognition as a landmark work.
That doesn’t alter the fact that I should have mentioned Wikipedia in the review, but it may offer some additional clarity as to the process by which the piece was constructed.
The review may not exactly be one of my shining moments as a writer, but it wasn’t written with any intent to defraud. I had no grand plot in mind to pass off anyone else’s writing to make me look more intellectual. There was no intent to deceive. My only thought was to include background information that would help play patrons better understand what is a very complicated, sophisticated work. And in fairness to me, the rest of the review, probably another 2/3 or so, is entirely my own. I didn’t copy someone else’s review, change the names and intend to pass it off as my own.
At the end of the day, however, that someone singled out me and dissected the review raises an important issue. With today’s access to electronically disseminated information, which is unparalleled compared to any other time in our history, plagiarism, even the inadvertent kind, is no doubt more a concern than ever.
What we do as writers, especially when it concerns reporting the news, ripples through a community or nation, and should be responsibly, thoughtfully and artfully composed. It is our duty to readers to make sure that if we reference other material, it’s properly credited and used ethically.
Particularly in news reporting, writing often means coming across tidbits of things in other news stories that will help punctuate your own story. Some of those things are public knowledge, and could have come from government outlets available to the world and media at large. On the other hand, citing a story broken by a news agency or specific author, is something other reporters should consider carefully when writing their own angle on a story.
The letter writer is, in my opinion, wrong about what The Sheet does in terms of reporting. We are not in the business of cutting down those we don’t like. In the case of Dr. Romero, for instance, we had reported on his problems with the BOE and spontaneous resignations long before the plagiarism story was brought to our attention. If anything we were in complete admiration of how skillfully he handled the MUSD’s budget situation. Still are.
What the letter DID was present an opportunity to step back and look at how we do what we do on a larger scale. We at The Sheet need to be keenly aware of the stories we write, and review and edit for accuracy and attribution. That goes for commentary, too. It may be someone’s opinion, but even Lunch, who’s either famous or notorious for his Page 2 rants, will probably be the first to agree lately that even commentary should be subject to some level of editorial scrutiny.
Upon first reading of the letter, I was upset by its tone, not to mention its content. I have no unrealistic expectations that this “mea culpa” will win over those who don’t and never will like The Sheet. In reflection, though, I do think that perhaps my initial reaction led me to a more important realization.
After all I’ve written in The Sheet, and previously for the Mammoth Times, the letter goes to serve as an ironic sort of wake-up call, reminding us that even though we write for a living, perfection of our profession, as with so many others, is a journey, not a destination. We should always be continuing our education, an important part of which is learning from our mistakes.