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.