Friday, June 29, 2012

Lessons learnt: journo in plagiarism mess

Consider this: "I and another journalist representing different media organizations interviewed the same individual together and asked him a different set of questions. Am I entitled to use responses to questions that were posed by the other journalist for MY story? 

This question had bugged me enough. So, at a science journalism workshop I told New Scientist magazine's San Francisco bureau-chief, Peter Aldhous that I was facing this ethical dilemma. He said (I am paraphrasing here) that I was being overcautious and it was not unethical on my part to use what was said to the other journalist because it was said in my presence (in a way said "publicly". Remember it was not a one-to-one meeting.) Though I should have taken Peter's word for it, considering his level of experience in science journalism, I still wonder if it would be wrong to use what was said in response to someone else's question, more so because questions were not asked at a press conference, in which case I have seen most journalists report what was said "publicly" no matter who asked the question. 

Jonah Lehrer is an experienced American science journalist who has contributed stories to well-known and credible publications. Lehrer has been accused of self-plagiarism. An outcome of discussions surrounding Lehrer's misconduct is a piece of useful advice from the American science writer and blogger, Carl Zimmer.

The following is an excerpt from Zimmer's interview with Seth Mnookin on PLOS Blogs, where Zimmer says: 

"1. Lifting paragraphs from one magazine article and putting them in another: uncool, both as an officially contractual matter with one’s editors, and as an implicitly contractual matter with one’s readers.

2. Reprinting old blog posts on a new blog: If readers haven’t read them before, the harm seems minor. But it seems a lost opportunity.

3. Including a passage in a book in a magazine article that someone else quotes in another article: Too Talmudic a distinction for me to judge, or, honestly, to care much about.

4. Adapting magazine or blog posts for a book: Totally legitimate. Anyone who gets worked up about this seems to me to not understand how writers build nonfiction books, or to simply be hunting for something to be outraged about.

5. Grabbing material from a blog and inserting into a magazine article: Shouldn’t be done..."

Though every media organization has its code of conduct/ethical guidelines for journalists, there are no written, universal rules about conduct in journalism, and more so in blogging. Lehrer's case is continuing to bring to light ethical codes that bloggers and journalists must adhere to. Lehrer may have learnt his lessons the hard way but others can benefit from his experience.

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