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Considering plagiarism? Just forget it! Nowadays you'll be busted for sure!

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Margaret Wente

There has never been a shortage of plagiarism in Canadian letters.

The sins of the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente are literally nothing new, and hardly unique, although the highly entertaining social media furor about them may be.

Indeed, I feel just the tiniest bit of sympathy for Wente -- who in the interests of full disclosure I must acknowledge briefly supervised some of my work at the Globe and Mail back in the 1980s. This is why I know about Conrad Black getting his driver to deliver his columns to her in the comfort of the company limousine.

The incidents of plagiarism uncovered by blogger Carol Wainio on her Media Culpa blog, while certainly a legitimate topic for reporting, do not seem to me to be particularly egregious examples of the cutting and pasting of other people's intellectual property.

That said, Wente is an exceptionally bright woman, and it seems unlikely to me that she didn't know what she was doing when she borrowed these materials.

Nevertheless, it has to be pretty easy to unintentionally lift a sentence or two from another writer and pop them into something you’re writing simply because it's the most efficient way to explain a bit of background. I worry about this all the time when I write this blog -- and I often find myself backwards putting some piece of elucidatory prose just so guilty I won't appear of plagiarizing something I've drawn out of one of the many journals whence come my backward blog ideas.

Certainly more exciting examples of Canadian plagiarism exist than Wente's pedestrian contributions to the genre. If you want to make an interesting prose comparison, for example, take a look sometime at Heather Robertson's entirely original "The Last of the Terrible Men," published in 1980, and then at a certain very well-known male journalist's book on a similar topic, published two years later.

Or how about a long passage from a very well known sports novel by a much-honoured Canadian author and an obscure where-are-they-now article in a minor upstate New York newspaper inscribed by a much-less-well-known Canadian reporter?

The consequences for the high-profile stenographers in both cases? Zero, as far as anybody knows.

One might argue, as has been observed by many commentators, that Wente and her employer were their own worst enemies in this matter. Instead of just owning up to a mistake and getting on with their lives, they tried to wiggle off the hook, refused to address the problem, and (in the Globe's case) even hinted darkly at the revelatory blogger about the possibility of expensive defamation actions. Then, when that didn't work, they crankily blamed the messenger.

Wente has a point when she complains that her sanctimonious views had something to do with the intense interest in her current predicament in social media. After all, she has made a point of being outrageous from the vantage of a highly visible national pulpit. She has enjoyed it and benefited from it, I have no doubt.

Alas for Wente, now the worm has turned. Really, she can hardly be surprised that the many voiceless people she irritated with her unsympathetic harangues feel a modest degree of Schadenfreude at her present unhappy circumstances. This is true even if the sin she stands accused of is quite different from what irritated her readers in the first place. It's simply human nature. And who knows, there may even be a few folks who share these sentiments within the white brick walls of the Globe’s bunker at 444 Front Street West.

But, je digresse, my main points today are a little different.

First, it has always griped me how some people get away with plagiarism while others have their careers or even their whole lives smashed.

Maybe this has more to do with our personalities and how easy it is for some of us to blow off being caught doing something naughty, while others among us feel devastatingly guilty for even meaningless infractions. But it's fair to say, there's no justice -- and no consistency at all -- in the way the consequences of this particular sin are meted out.

Who can forget Ken Adachi, the Toronto Star's excellent literary reviewer, who was fired by the Star in 1981 after being accused of plagiarism? He was taken back for a spell, but was allowed to feel driven to take his own life in 1989 after being accused of stealing three paragraphs from a book review in Time Magazine.

Adachi knew he faced being fired again from his livelihood, and his vocation, this time without much chance of appeal.

Wente faces what? Well, we don't know, because the Globe won't tell us. But it's unlikely to be much more than the proverbial slap on the wrist.

Maybe we should all agree now to what an appropriate punishment would be, and hold everyone accused of plagiarism to the same standard. A failing grade on their report card, perhaps, or two weeks in the stocks on Twitter, being pelted with soggy bons mots by the Twitterati. Or does that sound too much like a trade unionist's compromise solution, designed to protect the sinner as much as the sinned against?

My second point, which I think is the most important one, is that technology has now made plagiarism obsolete. So if you're pondering getting up to it, you'd better think about this!

You just can't do it. You will be caught. Nowadays, every one of us can be a literary CSI technician busting scholarly malfeasance wherever we think it occurs.

This started with college professors who suspected their students of stealing prose. Having taught a few college courses myself, I can tell you the alarm bells always ring when some kid who couldn't spell "CAT" if you spotted him the C and the T* turns in a polished and literate effort. (* I plagiarized that line from my friend and mentor Doug MacRae, a great journalist, long dead, alas. Since Doug is in no position to complain about it, I guess it's mine now…)

As a result, the technology now exists to compare passages of prose and spot similarities with other passages that exist anywhere on the Internet.

I'm not merely talking about enclosing a phrase in quotation marks and looking for an exact duplicate on Google. These applications are something altogether more sophisticated, capable of spotting even suspicious patterns.

What's more, while it may be high-tech stuff, it's not billion-dollar software that can only be afforded by the likes of the National Security Agency or the Communications Security Establishment. Free versions are even available on the Internet! Here’s a link to one.

So you don't have to just suspect Wente and some of her colleagues any more, you can check up on them and confirm your suspicions. What's more -- also thanks to the Internet -- you can drop the dime on them without having the Globe's Public Censor … I mean Public Editor … getting in your way.

Count on it that a lot more journalists and bloggers than Wente face a similar level of scrutiny in future. Indeed, some of them are doubtless being closely examined as this is being written. They -- and you -- will just have to get used to it.

This will also probably happen to bold fellows who crib sweet little poetic love notes from literary sources as well. Busted! Only with mockery or ardour dealt out to them unequally and unjustly based on such additional factors as appearance, size of bankroll, mood or recipient's degree of charity.

In other words, there's just no point in plagiarizing any more. You simply can't get away with it.

If you steal someone's words, you should just do what I advise my journalism students: put a comma after it, and follow that with the word "said" and the name of the person who said it. No one will criticize you. Indeed, they'll hail your research.

Surely Wente must have known this.

If you do it anyway and you get caught, well, awkward though your days may be, we're still all better off if you respond to your literary malfeasance as Wente did than the tragic way chosen by Adachi.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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