The Intersection of Plagiarism and Fabrication

Intersection ImageJonah Lehrer, Benny Johnson, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Jack Kelley and Juan Thompson.

What do those names have in common?

If you said they were all journalists, you’d be correct. If you said that they were all smsts, you’d also be correct. If you said they were all fabulists, you’d still be correct.

The truth is that these men were all journalists at various levels who were accused of both plagiarism and fabrication. The formula was different for each, some were serial fabulists with only minor plagiarism, others were the opposite but most delved very deeply into both sins.

However, when it comes to discussing plagiarism and fabrication, many ethicists talk about the two sins as if they are completely separate. Yet, as these cases and many like it show, when a journalist, author or researcher commits one of the two sins, they have a very good chance of having committed the other.

Two Often-Connected Sins

On a broad level, fabrication and plagiarism seem like two very different misdeeds. Fabrication is the falsification of information while plagiarism is taking the work of another and passing it off as your own.

Plagiarism, in short, is a misdeed that lacks originality while fabrication is one that has too much originality and takes liberties with the truth.

However, both are, at their cores, a lie. Plagiarism is a lie about the source and fabrication is a lie about the veracity. Once a journalist, researcher or other trusted author has committed to telling a lie, a second doesn’t make things significantly worse.

They also often have similar causes. A rush to meet a deadline, lack of confidence in one’s work, not caring about the assignment or just not caring about the ethics can lead authors to either plagiarism or fabrication (or both).

The similar causes and similar nature of the misdeeds mean that any author who is committed to become a plagiarist could, just as easily, become a fabulist.

A good example is Benny Johnson.

Johnson was fired from Buzzfeed for plagiarism but quickly hired by National Review Online and eventually made his way to the Independent Journal Review (IJR). There, he was suspended, but this time for fabrication. However, during his time at the IJR, he had been accused of plagiarism again, but managed to avoid severe reprimand for that incident.

Throughout his journalism career, Johnson had showed that he was willing to set aside basic ethics in order to further himself. He simply committed the misdeeds that helped him the most.

The same can be said for Jayson Blair, who, as he fell victim to his personal demons, committed widespread plagiarism and fabrication to meet deadlines while avoiding the actual work of being a journalist.

While plagiarism and fabrication are often treated as separate issues, they are often very much two heads of the same dragon.

Unfortunately, this means we have to change the way we think of ethics.

Changing the Conversation on Ethics

What this means is that we have to stop thinking about ethics as if we are simply trying to prevent plagiarists or fabulists. We have to look at it as an attempt to stop unethical authors (an ironic statement on a site named Plagiarism Today, but I digress).

Plagiarists and fabulists are both authors who have set aside their ethics. Any author who has set it aside enough to do one is likely to do the other. However, we have no way of knowing which will be the first warning sign.

Authors such as Benny Johnson may start out with plagiarism but move into fabrication later. Others, such as Juan Thompson may start out as fabulists but also dabble with plagiarism. Others still may behave like Jayson Blair, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into both.

This means that any effort to deal with ethics, whether in academia, journalism or other non-fiction, has to incorporate a diverse strategy. Good fact checking can help stop a plagiarist as much as plagiarism checking can help stop a fabulist.

The problem comes when editors and peer reviewers become laser-focused one sin or the other failing to realize that an unethical author might express thier lack of social mores in multiple directions.

In short, if you want to catch plagiarists, you also need to be looking for fabulists. Likewise, if you want to stop fabulists, checking for plagiarism is also a good place to start.

The two are not independent sins, but closely-connected misdeeds.

Bottom Line

In the end, dealing with ethics requires a multi-pronged approach. Fact checking, plagiarism checking, data analysis and citation checking are all part of the same process.

If we are going to make headway against unethical authors, we have to catch them early and that’s not possible if we’re only looking for one thing.

If we agree that plagiarism and fabrication are both wrong, we should be looking for both. Letting fabulists slip by while plagiarists get caught only creates more plagiarists.

While this means more time and more work, it will, almost certainly, produce much better results over the long haul.

That’s because such an approach treats the entire problem of unethical behavior, not just a single piece. That can only serve to drastically improve ethics in research and journalism, even if it takes a great deal of time to do so.

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