Monday, November 7, 2011

Plagiarism - now it's me

In mid-September, I was reading through Die Zeit online when I discovered an article about Global 2000, a report commissioned by President Jimmy Carter. I was interested because I did not know of any reason to be writing about that study now, and as I read on I realized that the presentation sounded quite familiar – such as here:

Vor allem aber den Klimawandel beschreiben die Global 2000-Experten bereits so, wie man ihn heute in allen Ausmaßen kennt. Die Temperaturen an den Polen klettern rascher als am Äquator, der Meeresspiegel wird steigen, die Erderwärmung könnte sich bis 2100 um drei bis sechs Grad erhöhen. Hierfür sei die Verbrennung fossiler Rohstoffe eine der Hauptursachen. Frühere Studien, die dieses Phänomen untersucht haben, bezieht Global 2000 in seine Analyse mit ein und bezeichnet deren Ergebnisse als »vielleicht sogar zu konservativ«. Acht Jahre bevor der Nasa-Mitarbeiter James E. Hansen im US-Kongress seine bahnbrechenden Klimaszenarien präsentierte, findet sich in Global 2000 bereits die Bezeichnung greenhouse effect –Treibhauseffekt.

It's quite a succinct wrap-up of the more than 1,000-page study – or at at least, that's what I thought when I drew exactly the same conclusions roughly four and a half years ago to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Carter's speech on the energy crisis from 1977 (no, not the "malaise speech"/Crisis of Confidence from 1979):

Global 2000 [listet] alles so auf, wie man es heute auch kennt: Die Wissenschaftler wissen nicht genau, wie die Folgen aussehen werden, aber vermutlich steigen die Temperaturen an den Polen schneller an als am Äquator; der Meeresspiegel steigt; die Erde wird vielleicht 3-6 Grad wärmer bis 2100 und die Verbrennung von fossilen Brennstoffen ist wohl eine der Hauptursachen, wenn nicht die größte. Global 2000 bezieht sich auf frühere Studien, die vor einer bevorstehenden Katastrophe warnen und nennt deren Ergebnisse "vielleicht sogar zu konservativ". Rund ein Jahrzehnt vor Hansens Bekanntmachung spricht Global 2000 von einem – im Original in Klammern gesetzten - "greenhouse effect".

As chance would have it, just a few days later security expert Bruce Schneier blogged about a study on software to detect plagiarism, which discusses the difficulty:

[the software] captures only the most flagrant form of plagiarism, where passages are copied from one document and pasted unchanged into another. Just as shoplifters slip the goods they steal under coats or into pocketbooks, most plagiarists tinker with the passages they copy before claiming them as their own. In other words, they cloak their thefts by scrambling the passages and right-clicking on words to find synonyms. This isn't writing; it is copying, cloaking and pasting; and it's plagiarism.
Kerry Segrave is a right-clicker, changing "cellar of store" to "basement of shop." Similarly, he changes goods to items, articles to goods, accomplice to confederate, neighborhood to area, and women to females. He is also a scrambler, changing "accidentally fallen" to "fallen accidentally;" "only with" to "with only;" and, "Leon and Klein," to "Klein and Leon." And, he scrambles phrases within sentences; in other words, the phases of his sentences are sometimes scrambled.

That's what the author at Die Zeit did: tweaked some of the wordings while sticking to my underlying analysis (my "almost a decade beforehand" becomes "eight years earlier"). I actually caught him red-handed, for my article in German was based on the English original, not the German translation, and he gives himself away in the German by quoting passages that occur in my German text but not verbatim in the official published German edition of the book.

You are probably all (or should I say, "both"?) wondering how this prestigious newspaper would react to the news, and I certainly was curious – so I wrote the author's editor. His basically said they will try to do better next time, but it is not really plagiarism because my text was not a dissertation. I then reported all of this to the publisher of my German article, who also said I would simply embarrass myself by making a fuss out of this – after all, I had simply written an article, not a dissertation.

I suppose there are two explanations for this reaction, which puzzles me: 1) it's possible that all of the discussion about plagiarized dissertations in Germany over the past year has made Germans see some kind of exclusive connection between plagiarism and dissertations; 2) it's possible that Germans believe that dissertations are somehow more "real" than mere journalism, whereas I have no illusions about dissertations generally containing original work. Maybe they did 100 years ago, but to my mind a dissertation is the thing you do in order to get a real job, such as in journalism. For me, the journalism is what lots of people read, and that's where you can have an impact. Maybe that's why I thought a dissertation would be a waste of time and never bothered to write one.

I did tell the clever plagiarist's editor that if Die Zeit thinks my ideas are good enough to publish, they should order them directly from me next time, but the editor merely responded that no one at his newspaper would have time to do any work if they went after everyone who plagiarized them. It's a silly response – I doubt that there are too many cases of serious publications stealing outright from Die Zeit – but at least I now know a little more about how Germans feel about plagiarism. And about how hard it is to get into major mainstream papers.


  1. Plagiarism is enough to fail you out of a class in college in the U.S. Plagiarism is stealing - plain and simple. Shame on them.

  2. i imagine if a solid chunk of an article is based on somebody else's work it should certainly be acknowledged -- and not just with a cavalier "auch ich habe mir da was rausgenommen", but with a proper (asterisk) and footnote, indicating the source. common courtesy. and if (40) per cent of the article is based on somebody else's work, a cheque ought to be in the mail, thanks to VG WORT