Is Copying Writing? Sometimes.

I'm frustrated to read that high school teachers are assigning fewer term papers due to the prevalence of on-line plagiarism. I understand the problem: Kids cut and paste chunks of the Internet into their assignments and claim the work is their own.

It's ethically dubious to be sure. But as long as you don't plagiarize an entire work, doesn't copy/paste assembly at least serve the minimal purpose of showing a student what good writing is?

Read the biographies of our greatest writers. They all started by copying or mimicking the works of their heroes, sometimes word-for-word. They wanted to see what made their sentences sing, what made their thoughts cohere, where the rhythm of their prose came from.

Originality is an overrated attribute in students. It's sentimental, e.g. "out of the mouths of babes." Not every child is born with original thoughts or ways of expressing them. Students gain knowledge by experiencing the original thoughts of others, and will eventually develop the confidence to present their own. Or not. But by copying from well-written sources, at least they'll get a feel for the way good writers organize their thoughts on paper.

What the kids are allegedly doing is relatable to hyperlinking, no? So why not reconfigure the assignment to require hyperlinks? I think a kid would have a harder time plagiarizing Internet copy if you made them link to their research sources. Teachers could set up class blogs, where students would post their work, links and all. If anyone suspected plagiarism, it would be a simple matter to highlight a few lines of text and run them through Google.

I hate to break it to everyone who wants to think we did things the right way in the olden days, but some kids used to copy material straight from the encyclopedia long before the the personal computer arrived. They scribbled the words on 3×5 cards, and then got those same words onto the page via a typewriter (defined in Wikipedia as "a mechanical, electromechanical, or electronic device with a set of 'keys' that, when pressed, cause characters to be printed on a document, usually paper.") It was laborious work, but for some kids, it was necessary.

Schools' primary objective should be: Every student a competent writer. It's my anecdotal impression that teaching good writing is not given a high enough priority in high school.  There are virtually no careers where you can get by without being able to present and organize words to express ideas to others. In the real world, many of those words are "boilerplate," which is a non-judgemental way of saying plagiarized (sometimes self-plagiarized). Your ability to choose the right words to copy, and to put them in the right place, is part of your education as a writer.

Don't misunderstand: To present someone else's words as your own is unethical. I'm disgusted by things like Cheathouse.com, where entire papers are available at a price. But, as the Times article points out, the same Internet that makes it easy to steal someone else's words, makes it easy to detect it when you did (just ask Ben Domenech.)

Here's tonight's interesting factoid:

The school also fights fire with fire, paying more than $2,000 a year to use Barrie's Web-based Turn It In, which checks a student's paper against a database of 17 million essays and papers. (John) Barrie's Oakland-based company, IParadigms, calculates that the odds of stringing the same 16 words together in the same order as somebody else is less than one in a trillion.

Wow. All over the world tonight, people are blogging, each entry unique, like a snowflake.

Another PR Tactic About to Bite the Dust

Global warming is a good metaphor for how the changing communications climate is affecting the array of PR tactics that hundreds of PR agencies offer their clients. Glaciers are melting, seas are rising, once-fertile forests turn to desert, and giant flies have begun to attack — but some species are too slow to move, and will die right where they stand.

It was not so long ago that my staff and I would draft "sample" letters to the editor, and distribute them, on a small scale, to average Dick and Janes to send to their local newspapers as if the letters were their own. We justified it thusly: The words might be ours, but the decision to sign and send was voluntary on the sender's part. The sender also is free to change our words as much as they want. Our drafts are merely suggestions. We'd never see the final product unless and until it ran. However, to be honest, when it did run, it usually looked just like our "sample."

I was never in charge of a campaign that did a nationwide letter-to-the-editor campaign, but the tactic is the same, and is based on the same intellectual premise: That your campaign represents all that is true and good, and is thus widely supported, but without being prompted your supporters might not state the case as eloquently as you, Mr. or Ms. PR Professional, would do.

By helping them, you could make extra sure that your supporters repeated your carefully-crafted "key messages," which you have told your client will carry the day. You are also helping to overcome your supporters' inertia, which might prevent them from taking a public stand on their own. After all, unlike you, these supporters aren't billing a client, so they can't be expected to go about their PR duties so diligently, right? They might not write at all. They might get distracted by, you know, life.

Well, attention all polar bears — the ice is almost gone, and you're about to fall into the Arctic Ocean to be nibbled to death by guppies.

David Mastio of InOpinion, a blog that promotes his newpaper op-ed consulting business, has made it a personal cause to expose AstroTurf letter-to-the editor scams, and protect our nation's editorial pages from running what are essentially unpaid political ads.

Check out the state-of-the-art letter-to-the-editor generators — an increasingly common tactic of the right and the left, as well as corporate-sponsored campaigns — from Hands off the Internet to Focus on the Family to MoveOn.org to advocates of The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

If you click on this link, or this one, you can see how it works. On the net neutrality site, you're given a choice of six pre-written paragraphs containing all the key messages. On the anti-gay marriage site, you've got 20 to pick from. You pick the ones you like, in the order you like, and then with a couple more clicks, a letter over your signature is sent automatically to your local newspapers, based on the geographic information you provide.

Figuring out if a letter to the editor is AstroTurf-generated is easy to do nowadays. If you see a letter to the editor that looks suspiciously PR-ish in its use of phrases, all you need to do is highlight a distinctive sentence, and run it through a Google search. If you've guessed right, you'll find published letters to the editor with nearly identical text but different authors, running in newspapers all over America.

Prompted by one of Mastio's links, I copied this phrase into Google: "Although we don’t eat horses, we slaughtered 88,000 last year for export to countries that do." This is a talking point for advocates of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Based on the search, I found this precise phrase in 138 citations of letters to the editor, from newspapers from Tucson to Boise to Miami to Chicago. The context for the letter is the unfortunate breakdown of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, so all of these letters were sent in the days immediately after the May 20th Preakness race when it occured. There is no web site I can find where this draft letter was offered, so I'm assuming the letter senders were prompted by e-mails from an animal rights organization.

Mastio's anti-AstroTurf letters-to-the-editor campaign has been noticed by some of A-list bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, Ed Driscoll and the PR-industry-focused Holmes Report Blog, which is what brought my attention to it. Mastio's linked to a couple of places where supporters of the groups he's busted defend the tactic. For example, Gary Schneeberger of Focus on the Family wrote this to the Seattle Times:

Calling it "willful deception" for groups like ours to help readers write letters to the editor is ludicrous; all we offer readers like Elisa Baggenstos is the assistance of a professional communicator to put what is in their hearts into publishable form.

If it's unethical for someone to sign his or her name to a letter largely written and/or edited by someone who writes and/or edits for a living, then where's the outrage over commentaries that appear on this page under the name of a congressman or senator? Certainly, Mr. Pluckhahn is aware those pieces aren't written by the congressman or senator him/herself, but by a staff member who helps compile the lawmaker's convictions into a well-written whole.

But Schneeberger and other campaign organizers who agree with him miss the point. Nobody would mind if Elisa Baggenstos asked a professional communicator to put what is in her heart into publishable form. The problem comes when hundreds of other people use the same professional communicator's exact phrases, but sign their own names to them. It's a form of trickery and deceit on the part of the respective campaigns, who are trying to create an illusion of grassroots support by fooling newspaper editors into believing these letters are a spontaneous response to an issue of concern among the paper's readers.

It is also, by the way, cynical and patronizing to assume, as Schneeberger does, that Focus on the Family's supporters are too inarticulate to express their heart-felt opinions in their own words.

The practice seems to be growing but I predict its swift demise, because it is so easily detected and foiled. Newspaper editors should be able to sniff out a suspected AstroTurf letter, and can confirm their suspicions with a Google search like the one I did about the 88,000 slaughtered horses. I assume they would not knowingly publish a letter that has already appeared in another newspaper over a different signature.

If the newspaper editors won't do the detective work, I'm sure the adversaries to the campaigns using AstroTurf letters will. This is exactly how the left-wing bloggers busted Ben Domenech, the conservative writer who had been handed a blog by the Washington Post — proving his plagiarism with just a few clicks. As Schneeberger's unfortunate statement demonstrates, AstroTurf letters to the editor are a tactic that, once exposed, cannot be defended without damaging your cause.

The Mystery of Plagiarism

Whenever the topic of plagiarism rears its head in the media, I scratch my head. People write because they want to express themselves and gain recognition. Where's the psychic satisfaction in letting the world think someone else's words are yours? The potential for material gain provides little incentive. For intelligent people like writers, there are usually better choices available if their objective is to make money.

To steal language from someone else's movie review squib, as now-disgraced Washington Post blogger Ben Domenech admits to have done, is somewhat like a bank employee getting caught for embezzling pens. What could Domenech have gotten paid by National Review Online for those movie reviews? $200? Why bother? And it's not like the prose he ripped off was all that scintillating.

ben domenech.jpgAre plagiarists just too busy to do their own writing? I suppose that what motivates college term paper plagiarists. Too many classes, too much partying, oh hell I'll just buy a paper on the Internet. And maybe that was Domenech's excuse. He was a young man in a hurry, perhaps, and needed to see his name ubiquitiously in print. But this kid is 24. He barely remembers a time before e-mail. He should know how easy it is to put a complete sentence or paragraph in a search engine and find its match if one exists. He risked, and lost his reputation for nothing, committing a transgression so easily detected.

Domenech's apologists talk about his selflessness for the cause of conservatism. The blog from whence he came, RedState, initially defended him against the left-wingers who discovered his plagiarism, but then had to backtrack:

If you, as many have done, dedicate thousands of man-hours to scrutinizing of (Domenech's) life's work, you'll find two things: First, you'll find several instances of this behavior, some attributable to youth, and some not. Second, you'll find an amazingly talented writer, a man of principle, and an earnest young activist seeking not to advance himself — though advance he did — but the things he believed in.

Certainly it may seem strange today to describe him as a "man of principle." But those who know Ben — and all of us on the RS leadership team do — know that he is passionate in his beliefs. They also know that he is human. It was ignoring this humanity that led to our earlier posts about the situation. It is fitting then, that he chose “Augustine” as his nom de plume here at RedState – for who could serve as a better reminder of the full potential of fallibility and sin – and yet existing within that peril – real hope of forgiveness.

So let me get this straight. Domenech's copycat reviews of mediocre movies served the holy conservative cause because it allowed Domenech to gain greater fame, such that the Washington Post would sponsor his blog, and thereby bring the good word into the temple of the liberal media? Something like that. How oddly expedient, for a movement that regards itself as the house of principle.

(I guess the right-wing blogosphere does not believe the old media is dead or irrelevant. In their heart of hearts, they want to convert the Washington Post, not kill it. Certainly, even before Domenech's perfidy was exposed, there was uproar on the left about his blog, one that clearly exposed the left's primary foible — a titanic level of intolerance for differing viewpoints. Just ask Sen. Joe Lieberman, he of the Americans for Democratic Action liberal rating of between 85-95, what happens when you vary from the orthodoxy.)

A couple of notable historians have been caught for plagiarism, like Doris Kearns Goodwin. According to Atlantic Monthly, she has never appeared on PBS since she admitted lifting phrases from a Kennedy book for her own. Her plagiarism seems more like an accident. Biographers assemble their work over the course of years from thousands of three-by-five cards (or the digital equivalent) with bits and pieces of information on them along with bibliographic information. When writing the book in question, perhaps Goodwin expropriated the prose on the notecard, unaware that it wasn't her notes at all, but direct quotes. I accept her excuse, even if Jim Lehrer doesn't, especially because she now seems sincerely ashamed at the error.

I would feel differently if it turned out Goodwin did it on purpose. But it would also strike me as mysterious. She obviously loves history and the people she writes about. She's already enjoyed a high level of success. Everyone's bank account could be a little bigger, but I doubt the difference between a house in Tahiti and one in New Jersey came down to a copying a few paragraphs from a writer far more obscure than she.

My attitude toward plagiarism comes from my mother. That I'm a writer at all is due to her insistence that I never copy prose from the encyclopedia for my school assignments. I'm sure every other fourth-grader who had to write about salamanders or Gen. Lafayette took sentences straight from the Brittanica, but my mother wouldn't allow it. So I had to rephrase everything, but it had to be just as good as my source. I spent many hours trying to do this, and emerged from the experience as a writer.

Then, of couse, I went into a profession — PR — that not only condones plagiarism, but ofttimes insists on it. Once your client has settled on "key messages," you're supposed to insert them in all the copy that flows from them. In media training, you tell your clients to "bridge" back to those key messages during interviews, e.g. "That's not the real question, Katie. The real question is, how are we going to (insert key message here.)"

The mind-numbing repetition of the same handful of sentences is supposed to help the client's message to "break through." That's one of those PR magic spells I'm beginning to think has worn off. Nobody watches politicians on the news interview shows anymore, according to the ratings. And why? Because all they do is repeat themselves and they don't answer actual questions. Does repeating the same answer over and over again work if no one's listening? When I hear someone talk, I want to be surprised by the originality of their thoughts and the way they express them. A heavily media-trained interview subject is a guaranteed bore. When were you ever persuaded by a bore?

Whether you're a writer or a speaker, plagiarism is malpractice for writers and speakers. That goes equally for self-plagiarism and plagiarizing your own PR people.