What the New York Times Gets Right (and Wrong) About Plagiarism

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Last week, the New York Times (NYT) found itself at the center of a plagiarism and citation controversy. 

The paper released a multipart series on the country of Haiti, it looked at the debts that both France and the United States placed on the country since its independence and the role those debts have played in the country’s economic state.

Though the material and the presentation of data is, by in large, seen as good, historians and other academics that participated in the article felt that they had not been given adequate credit for their contributions, both to the series itself and to the field in general.

In particular, many researchers felt that the NYT was presenting a new story they had uncovered, even though decades of research has been going into this space. 

This prompted a response from the paper, which said that, though some were quoted and cited in the articles itself, many more were included in a lengthy companion list of sources as well as other pages targeting specific issues covered in the series. 

According to the paper, the goal was transparency and to give others the opportunity to continue researching the issue if they so chose. However, the paper added, “In journalism, reporters often speak to many more sources than can be quoted or referred to by name in an article…” It was also noted that the NYT performed hundreds of interviews, and citing them all in the articles themselves would not be practical.

The NYT also had defenders from outside the paper, Author Adam Davidson took to Twitter to say that, “It is very hard to write compellingly while also constantly citing research” and that the paper. However, Davidson was met with a strong response, with many noting that citation can actually help with narrative.

So, what actually happened and who is right? There’s no easy answer to that. However, it’s first important to frame it in the much larger context that the dispute is taking place in. After all, this case isn’t just about the New York Times or journalism, it’s about citation standards more broadly.

Understanding Citation Standards

Citation standards vary wildly from the type of work that is being created, the medium that the work is in, and who the audience for that work is.

You can see examples of this everywhere. Twitter, for example, has a different citation standard than Facebook. A news article, has a different citation standard than a legal filing, which has a different standard than an academic paper. 

The only thing that is consistent between citation standards is what they contain. Such a standard should tell a writer (and thus also a reader):

  1. What Needs to Be Cited: The types of outside sources and works that need citation.
  2. When to Cite It: When one’s use of those sources reaches the requirement for citation.
  3. How to Cite It: What format that citation should take when it is called for.

In some environments, such as a friendly email, the citation standards can be very loose. Very few things really call for citation and, when they are cited, it’s usually very casually. However, in an academic paper, citation standards are incredibly rigid, with guides that cover every detail of the citation process, including the formatting. 

This, in turn, is where the stage for this controversy is set. Though journalism does have a fairly rigid citation standard, it is not the same standard as academia. Where an academic journal article may easily have over half of its content be footnotes, news articles focus on keeping citations to within the body of the work itself.

It was always going to be difficult for the paper to find a way to balance thorough citation with the realities of news media. In their mind, they resolved this problem with their separate sources page. Academics, on the other hand, felt shut out as their names and works were not mentioned in the main article, even as their information was getting mainstream media attention.

In short, the NYT felt that they did the best that they could, but academics and researchers feel short-changed. However, in a strange way, they are both right. 

The Limits of Citation

There are definite limits to who and how much can be cited in the confines of a news article. As Jack Shafer at Politico pointed out, “The problem with credit-giving is that somebody always gets left out.”

Where that line is drawn is a difficult question. When you’re writing a report that literally had over a hundred contributors, not every name can fit. Who is included in the article and who is relegated to the secondary page is a difficult decision to make. 

However, the issue isn’t that the NYT failed to include everyone. To many academics, it’s that the tone of the piece presents the issue as one they discovered, not simply an area of intense research that has had little public exposure.

That criticism, in turn, is much more fair. Even if the NYT could not have named every single researcher or individual that contributed, clearly indicating that this piece is based on such research would go a long way to smoothing out this divide.

While it is true that the NYT could not have attributed their work to academic standards, there is still more that they could have and should have done within the standards of journalism. Not doing that, is a disservice to both the researchers and the audience.

While I don’t believe that the NYT meant any ham and I do believe them when they say that their goal was transparency, the truth is that very few people will look at their complete list of sources. Most will simply read the piece and, according to the academics that contributed, walk away with a misunderstanding about the work being done in this field.

The truth is that better citation, even just focusing on acknowledging the work of key researchers, would not have drastically changed the piece. However, it would have gone a long way to both alert readers to the work going on underneath the reporting and in appeasing the researchers now criticizing them.

Bottom Line

The NYT was always in a difficult position with this piece when it comes to citation. There was no way to cite everyone who helped, at least not within the piece itself, and working with academics, who have a more strict citation standard, opened the door to disagreements about attribution.

So yes, the NYT had to make some very difficult decisions and handled elements of those decisions well. The choice to create a separate sources page was savvy and to further use sources like Github to share additional information was also clever and appropriate. 

However, it’s apparent that their approach in the piece itself did not do enough. When you’re basing a report on a long history of research, you may not be able to cite every single person who contributed, but you can make it clear that there is much more going on under the surface.

To be clear, I don’t think the NYT or the reporters were malicious. I don’t think there was a conscious decision to under cite the actual piece. Instead, I think that the NYT missed opportunities to clarify the nature of the story and give more clear credit. 

What I find more disturbing is that the NYT is essentially digging in its heels after the issue has been pointed out. This is an opportunity for the paper to address the issue and fix it. Instead, they seem more interested in arguing over the details.

To be clear, citation and attribution battles like this one are going to happen, especially writers work across separate kinds of works. However, this isn’t simply a case of researchers being upset they weren’t cited like they would in an academic paper, but rather, contesting the overall narrative of the piece.

While there were always going to be limits on what the NYT could do, it could have and should have done more.

When discussing citation, I always encourage writers to do whatever they can and to bake transparency into the writing itself. No one has ever been criticized for over-citing a work.

However, this is one time the NYT did not heed that advice.

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