Columbia University editor plagiarizes from New York Times article

by Andrew Beaujon

Published Sep. 7, 2012
An article by Jade Bonacolta in the Columbia Spectator plagiarized a New York Times writer’s work, Peter Jacobs reports. Some of the plagiarism is clumsy rewriting of a Robin Pogrebin article; there’s one outright lift of a quote.

“[W]e have retracted this story after verifying that at least three paragraphs were largely identical to those in the New York Times piece,” an editor’s note that replaces Bonacolta’s piece says. “We will be reviewing the writer’s other work and will update readers as we know more.”

Bonacolta’s LinkedIn page identifies her as arts and entertainment editor at the Spectator; Jacobs says Spectator Editor-in-Chief Sarah Darville told him she was an associate editor. According to her profile there and on Facebook, she’s been at the Spectator since November 2011 and has held editorial positions at Hoot Magazine, Elmore Magazine and a literary magazine called Loque and Quay Literary Arts.

I ran one of Bonacolta’s Elmore pieces that I chose at random through an online plagiarism checker and found a sentence lifted from the site for Bumbershoot, the music festival she was writing about: “One ticket gets you into all Bumbershoot venues, including both afternoon and evening shows at the Mainstage.” Hardly Jayson Blair, but not a good sign: She couldn’t have been bothered to express information that boring in her own words?

Whenever one of these cases pops up (and they pop up with dismal regularity), Poynter readers on Twitter ask why anyone thinks they can get away with lifting copy from others. Barbara Fister responds, in a way, by writing about the pressures that norms place on students:

I suspect a large part of the problem is that we send such mixed messages to students. You may hate group work, but it will prepare you for the reality of the workplace – but when we tell you to work alone, don’t discuss the test or homework problems with anybody else or face severe punishment. When you write a paper, your work must be original – but back up every point by quoting someone else who thought of it first. Develop your own voice as a writer – but try to sound as much like us as possible. …

All of this complexity is compounded by dire warnings about the consequences of plagiarism, layered on top of a mistaken notion that research is formalized copying. Who would ever fall in love with research under these conditions? Who would even think it is a meaningful activity?

Great questions, but I think they downplay the basic dishonesty that enables someone to grab an idea, a quote, a sentence from someone else’s work (not to mention the dangers of that dishonesty, given the Internet’s ability to amplify even bush-league moral lapses).

Last month, my coworker Craig Silverman wrote about warning signs in young writers’ work: “The core of fabrication is a separation from reality,” he wrote. Smaller problems, like crummy sourcing and quotes that seem a little too perfect, are strong indicators of a bigger problem, Silverman wrote.

“The Words,” a movie about plagiarism, opens this weekend, and Jen Chaney’s review of it for The Washington Post provides a meta-example of the smaller-problems-leading-to-bigger-problems principle. The broke would-be author who presents another writers’ work as his own somehow affords a honeymoon in Paris, Chaney writes, and the work that proves irresistible to him is “often hackneyed and pretentious,” she writes. “First rule of making a movie about writing: Make sure the prose in that movie’s screenplay is actually good.”

Related stories on university plagiarism: ASU journalism student plagiarizes at The State Press, East Valley Tribune; Arizona Republic investigating her stories, too | Harvard probes cheating by 125 students in the same class


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