The Maureen Dowd Plagiarism Scandal



It has become something of a custom on this site to offer analysis and opinion on every great plagiarism scandal that breaks. I did it with the Obama, McCain and the recent Biden scandal. So, it is only fitting that we also take a few moments to analyze the the recent allegations (and confessions) of Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist accused of plagiarism.

Though a journalist caught plagiarizing a quote is no longer a huge scandal, even one as well-known as Dowd, what makes this case interesting to many is that Dowd, back in 1987, Dowd broke the story of then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s alleged plagiarism and vigorously attacked Biden for it.

Now, 20 years later, Biden is the Vice President and it is Dowd who faces very pointed and very public allegations of plagiarism. Though the New York Times appears to be standing by Dowd in the face of the accusations, saying that it was an error and has now been corrected, many have been celebrating the turn of events.

So question becomes whether or not Dowd plagiarized and, if so, how serious are the allegations? I decided to take a look at the passages and see for myself.

What Happened

Yesterday, a blogger on Talking Points Memo (TPM) noticed that a paragraph from Maureen Dowd’s Sunday online column bore a striking resemblance to a paragraph in a post by TPM’s editor Josh Marshall from earlier in the week.

Upon further examination, it become clear that the two paragraphs, both over 40 words, were identical save for one minor alteration. The story first appeared on TPM and quickly caught fire on liberal blogs, especially The Huffington Post.

The exact quotes are as follows, in Dowd’s column, she said the following:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Marshall’s column, from earlier in the week, had this paragraph:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Between the two columns, there was only one change, where Marshall said “We”, Dowd said “the Bush crowd”. It was a near-perfect plagiarism, but not necessarily a very damming one.

Dowd’s Response

Eventually, Dowd was force to respond and she admitted to the plagiarism in an email to the Huffington post saying:

josh is right. I didn’t read his blog last week, and didn’t have any idea he had made that point until you informed me just now. i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column. but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me. we’re fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.

The only story was corrected to give attribution to Marshall and a correction was also printed in the next day’s edition of The New York Times directing people to the new column on the Web.

However, the controversy is ongoing. Many are starting the process of looking through Dowd’s other work, including her book, and it seems likely that any instance of copying, no matter how slight, will be attacked.

My Thoughts

There is little doubt that Dowd copied from Marshall. Marshall’s passage is 43 words and all but one of them appear verbatim in Dowd’s passage, which is 45. However, it is not an egregious amount of copying by any definition. If this amount had been properly attributed, it would almost certainly not be viewed as unethical. and, even in plagiarized form, has a strong fair use argument in its favor.

Dowd had no reason to plagiarize this passage, she also had no reason to assume that verbatim plagiarism would not be detected. When I first heard about this incident and looked at the evidence, my first thought was that it was an honest mistake, one where the attribution had been hacked off in the editing.

However, there are two problems with that argument. First, Dowd edited the quote. Though the edit was minor in terms of the percentage, it changed the context of the quote at least some. though journalists do routinely edit quotes, there is a style standard for doing so and one never edits a quote to change its meaning. Dowd’s edits violate both of those rules.

The second problem, however, is Dowd’s response. Rather than admitting she made a mistake, she instead has claimed to have heard the quote while talking to her friend and wove it into her column. This claim, does not seem to hold up to scrutiny. If this is to be true. She remember a 43-word quote from a verbal conversation with approximately a 97% accuracy (43 words in the original quote, 42 reappearing verbatim). That is, quite frankly, almost impossible.

If Dowd had admitted that it was a mistake, said that no plagiarism was intended and worked to correct the mistake. I would not have been suspicious at all. The truth is accidents do happen and it is entirely possible that an intended quote could be accidentally melded in with original content. I know first hand that the process of drafting and editing a news article is brutal and confusing.

However, covering up what easily could have been, and may still be, an honest mistake with an almost certain lie doesn’t help. It is very likely that Dowd did just make a mistake, but now the specter of plagiarism will haunt her and the allegations will carry weight due to her response.

Bottom Line

In the end, the Dowd plagiarism scandal, much like the Obama, Biden and McCain ones from the election cycle, center more around politics than they do actual plagiarism. There is a great deal of schadenfreude on the parts of both conservatives and liberals, both of whom she has attacked over the years and there seems to be a great deal of interest in making a mountain out of this, even if it was just a mistake.

That being said, Dowd did not help herself any with her explanation and I would have encouraged her to be honest about what had happened.

Personally, if had been doing this plagiarism analysis for a client, I would have confirmed, with a very high level of probability, that copying did take place but I would have added that it was unclear if it was intentional plagiarism or an accident. The amount copied and the nature of the copying makes it very likely that the plagiarism could be attributed to accident, not malice.

However, Dowd’s own words cast doubt upon that. Before her reply, I would have at least considered defending her, much as I did with both Obama and McCain, but now I am unsure. Though I still believe that the lack of attribution was likely an accident and the editing a possible oversight, Dowd’s explanation makes very little sense and that, more than the copying itself, has given me reason to be worried.

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  1. Being a frequent target of plagiarims myself I read your post with great interest. The alleged plagiarism is 97% accurate at a lenght of 45 words as you yourself point out. What would you consider the lower limit of what can be considered plagiarism in this context? 40 words at 95%? 36 words at 88%? I do realize that context is the most important factor when considering this but could a case also be made of "great minds think alike" and there being a chance that two good writers would compose a similar sentence? It is after all only one single sentence (and in my humble opinion too long). It it had been a case of a whole section of two or three sentences I think that the case of plagiarism would be easily acknowledged by everyone but in this case, at least to me, it actually not that clear cut. As you point out, it one looks closely enough at a person which such a huge amount of written material behind her, we are likely to be able to find many more instances of near or over 45 words at 97%. But it is my bet that we are also likely to find that she has been plagiarised herself.Please excuse my poor English, it is not my first language.

  2. That's actually a good question. Plagiarism detection is one part science one part art so there aren't many firm rules here.Typically, when I'm running my plagiarism analysis software over papers, I set it to detect matching strings of text 5-7 words long. When I tell people to search for their own work in Google, I tell them to use strings of text about 9-12 words long. This isn't to say that every string of text those lengths are a plagiarism when duplicated, but it is a good place to start looking. In the later case, I tell people to find "statistically improbable phrases" that are unique to their writing.And that is really the problem. If I say "The cat jumped over the dog" it is a relatively common phrase that you can find on at least 135 URLs according to Google. Change it to "The feline leaped over the bulldog" you get a unique phrase that can not be found on the Web (Google only has matches for it without the quotes).So that brings us to this case. When you consider that there are many thousands of words even in most people's vocabulary, opportunities to reorder sentences, leave out thoughts and change ideas, the chances of two people, even with the exact same political view, coming up with the same verbatim text over the course of 40 plus words is astronomical.Could it happen, yes. But this seems to be only slightly more probable than the monkeys writing Shakespeare on accident that philosophers like to talk about. Think about it, Dowd would not only have had to have the exact thought, but use the exact same synonym for every word, the exact same sentence structure, the exact same order and the exact same punctuation. Copying seems more likely.Not that copying is bad, if it is attributed. However, as I pointed out, it could have been an easy mistake and it is one that Dowd and the NYT has fixed. They seem to admit that it was copied from there.I could go in more detail and highlight some of the unique language in Marshall's quote, but I think this is enough for now. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  3. Agreed that this was not an accident. There's no way she could have gotten those particular 45 words, in that order, without reading them from the original or having someone else do it for her.My question is this: how do we know that Maureen Dowd writes her column at all? Perhaps she has an intern or assistant who is taking on some of her work. Someone she's mentoring. Someone who is just stupid enough to copy a paragraph, word for word, from a blog, not fully understanding that the source is as popular as it is and that the plagiarism will get caught?I have trouble believing that Maureen Dowd (or any other high-ranking Times contributor) can be this dumb.And to deny that it's a copy is purely moronic. I like the "edited out the source" theory; if they'd gone with that, her image wouldn't be quite as tarnished and we wouldn't be asking all of these questions.

  4. Your question is a valid one. She's already been slighted once for not attributing the reporting of her assistant.…..This means two things. First, she has an assistant (most reporters don't, even high-profile ones) and she has no problem taking credit for their work.So yes, it could very easily be that this is a column written by someone else on her behalf and posted under her name, it wouldn't surprise me. It might also explain her poor excuse.Still, without proof it is hard to say what happened here. I'd be interested to see what her assistant has to say about this incident, if, maybe, she can shed some more light on it.

  5. Full out plagerism. Of course. Even if they had the same thought. Would they both end a question with a period. I am an English neophyte and I know that. Come on Dowd needs to fess up. Someone else is writing for her or he she too arogant to admit the truth. A mistake in not attributing the quote. Sounds like a cover up if the writer is supposedly so accomplished. The media will all help each other and claim this is a mistake. Who are they kidding. Oh yea, only the sheep who believe the media "always" reports honestly.

  6. This is a passage that neither Marshall nor Dowd could be proud of having "crafted." It lacks the flow that would make it easy to remember and replicate, either accidentally or on purpose. I challenge Bailey to step up and take a stand. If I were a client of his and got this "analysis" I would refuse to pay for it. It is so, so clear that it could never have been an accident (unless by an editor or typesetter after midnight leaving off the proper attribution.) And, of course, Maureen Down would never quote a blogger, except to attack the blogger. Mr. Bailey: I'm not buying your attempted whitewash. Nice try.

  7. As someone who does plagiarism analysis for a living, I don't believe that a single 45 word instance of unattributed copying, by itself, proves plagiarism, especially since others have been running her previous works through plagiarism checkers and have come up with nothing. To prove plagiarism, one must show that the person copied, they did so without attribution and that they did so intentionally. The latter part is the sticking point here. Having been in newsrooms, I know how copy gets passed around, edits lost and mistakes happen. Newspapers have a corrections section for this reason.Do I agree this was a mistake? Yes. Do I agree it was a bad mistake? Yes. But does it prove plagiarism by itself? No. I have no desire to defend Dowd, it would behoove me and my bottom line to take her to the gallows (might further the traffic spike I'm seeing) but I will not sacrifice my opinion or my integrity for that cause.

  8. I'll direct you to my comment above for your answer. As someone who has studied plagiarism to no end I agree completely that this was copied without attribution, but I obey the standard "beyond a reasonable doubt" when dealing with plagiarism matters and this does not rise to that, though her "excuse" does bring me very close.I'm not attempting to whitewash what happened. I agree that this is a serious error and that there should be some reprimand, but it is not clear, by itself, if this rises to malicious plagiarism. I sense that there are pieces of the puzzle missing and I seriously doubt that we are going to get them, however, I have to run with the evidence I have.

  9. These days we "talk" by e-mail. From Dowd's explanation, it sounds as if she may have cut, pasted, and slightly edited a point that a friend had made to her in an e-mail. Still, it seems odd that one of Dowd's friends, presumably media savvy, would have plagiarized the point and sent it to her.

  10. Hm, hard to say on this one. Admittedly, I'm not familiar with Shafer's views on plagiarism elsewhere. I think calling the explanation plausible doesn't make much sense nor does saying that she hasn't used it as an excuse. With one incident of relatively minor plagiarism, it could be many different things but I don't think it was what Dowd claimed it was and anyone who thinks it is has some form of blinders on.However, even if her response had been perfect, I do think this would have warranted a deeper investigation into her writing just to make sure this was the only incident. I don't think that has happened yet, not officially at least.I don't really have anything for or against Dowd, I'm just not ready to convict or drop prosecution either. There's more to this and anyone who can't see that probably isn't paying attention or is showing some bias.

  11. An interesting possibility and one I had not weighed.I have to be honest though, I think of my self as email savvy as just about anyone but I've never said I talked to people over email. Then again, maybe I just don't realize it.Of course, there are other technologies including IM that it could be as well. Still, until we hear from Dowd exactly what she says happened, we're not going to really know.As for the friend, if what Dowd says is right, then you are correct, poor form and very un-media savvy.

  12. "Every Artist Is a Cannibal Every Poet Is a Thief" Bono… Did Bono really originate this phrase or did he steal it from some bloke in an Irish Bar? And if so is it plagerism. I think not, the same with Dowd's column.This is common in music, often, we see strings of notes used by other composers, are they thiefs?The same with movies. Did Spielberg in Private Ryan, steal fthe opening scene rom Stones Platoon? Did Dowd quote her 43 words from her friend, and if so should she have given her credit? It is entirely possible that her friend was her source. No. because, she context is changed because it was incorporated into her entire column with her bent on the issue. Just as her friend gave her verbatim line from the original writer. ( This is not implausable, when one hears a profound statement.) Besides, Maureen is the princess of journalism and Dorthy Rabinowitz's the queen. No one could have written that column, except for Maureen. What about actors… Marilyn Monroe, acting style has been plagerized by millions, and she I'm sure borrowed from many great actors in the past. We are all thieves. I stole from all the great writers. I once heard a story about one writer asking another writer if he is angry that another writer "stole" his phrase. His answer… I am flattered. And that is my answer. For some reason, writers have this complex that every thing they say, is theirs… But I am sure, somewhere in their past, they likewise "stole it" form someone else. Writers are too sensitive. All other artists tend to be flattered that they are copied. But writers for some reason, seem to have a massive inferiority complex. Someone once said that there are a 100 plots in literature, and they are all in the BIBLE.ron hansing

  13. Dear Mr. Bailey,Sadly you are whitewashing here, and like you I do plagiarism analysis for a living and have been doing it since 1981 (I am a university professor). What Dowd has done here is a classic and egregious example of plagiarism, that would have seen her flunking the class, and hopefully learning the lesson. Also, there is no such animal as accidental plagiarism–it is all intentional and deliberate–and sloppiness is no excuse.