To Make It up or Just Plagiarize It

Time magazine and CNN this summer suspended Fareed Zakaria, a well-respected editor at the magazine and host of one of the network’s Sunday news shows, after discovering he had plagiarized information from an article written by someone else.

Zakaria may be the most highly visible person suspended, fired, or otherwise punished this summer for plagiarizing material, making up information, or lying in books, articles, or blogs. But he is not the only one.

Among others was Jonah Lehrer, a bestselling author and rising journalism star, who apparently fabricated a quote from Bob Dylan for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. This error became apparent after the book had been on multiple bestseller
lists for weeks, and soon after he had been caught reusing in his New Yorker blog posts some material he had written for Wired and other publications. His made-up Dylan quote was costly. The publisher recalled the printed copies of Imagine, and Lehrer resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker, one of the most coveted positions in journalism.

These examples of questionable writing tell us three things of importance to business communicators.

1. People are willing to play the game of odds.

Some people are always willing to take the chance of not getting caught when they make up or steal information for their books or blogs—even in the days of the Internet with everyone watching what everyone else does. Surely Lehrer had to expect that some Dylan expert would have his hands—or database—on everything ever written or said by, or written about, the singer/songwriter, and would pounce on the opportunity to question whether a big-time journalist had really interviewed him and gotten him to say something that did not ring true with his other statements.

This game is stacked against the writer. He/she may get away with it for a while—but not forever. Lehrer was willing to play the odds, and he lost.

2. The borderline between right and wrong is getting grayer.

Lehrer’s reuse of his own Wired material in his New Yorker blog was in a gray—and graying—area of acceptable/unacceptable behavior. Maybe some people would give him the benefit of the doubt here, as The New Yorker seems to have done by only reprimanding him for this mistake (although not for the Dylan quote). After all, it was his own writing that he repurposed, so maybe he thought he had a right to use it again. He wouldn’t be the first writer to do so. In fact, bloggers are always publishing blog posts (or parts of them) in more than one place. My guess, however, is that they first have permission to do so.

You need to know the rules. What’s acceptable at one publication or online outlet is not acceptable at another. Every writer needs to know the particular rules under which he/she is working and know that the correct edge of the gray borderline for one outlet may be the wrong edge for another. He/she needs to question whether walking anywhere close to the edge is too dangerous.

3. It’s too easy to plagiarize—by mistake.

Zakaria was suspended from his Time and CNN positions for only a few days before management decided that he had not purposely plagiarized someone else’s writing. In his apology, he said that it was a mistake to not give credit to the material he found during his research and used uncredited in his article.

As any writer who uses the Internet for research knows, this is an easy mistake to make. How many times have you found just the right statement supporting a point you want to make and then copied it onto your screen—thinking you’ll remember where you found it and will give proper credit? It happens to almost everyone.

Before the Internet, people still found ways to make this mistake, but it was much more difficult to do accidently because they had to photocopy a page, or retype or rewrite the passage. Today, the words—a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole section—can be copied into a document with a couple of keyboard clicks, flowing sometimes in the right typeface and size. The next day, they seem—to the careless and less observant, but also to those with the highest ethical standards—as if they had been written along with the surrounding information.

One would like to think that these acts of plagiarism and of using made-up material in nonfiction writing would never happen within corporate America. But they do.

Perhaps they happen because some writer in the PR, marketing, or corporate communications department gets someone else’s writing mixed up with his or hers by mistake; or they happen on purpose when the pressure to write something great and fast is too much for the writer; or on a rare occasion when the odds of getting caught don’t seen so high because fewer people in business are actually looking for these mistakes and errors of judgment.

Sometimes they happen not at the lowly writer level but at the highest level of the corporation. In 2005, for example, William Swanson, CEO of Raytheon, published a book of management rules, rules he claimed to have developed over his many years in business. After the company gave out about 300,000 copies of the book, and he was praised for his insights, it was discovered that about half of the rules had been taken from a 1944 book on engineering laws and some of the others had come from additional sources. His punishment?  The book was withdrawn and his compensation for 2006 was reduced by almost $1 million.