Editorial: What we learned while cleaning up our plagiarism mess

We’re still reeling from our discovery that the Union’s former sports editor, Rick Macey,  plagiarized several articles that made it into print. Since then, we’ve taken several steps to try to mitigate the damage, take responsibility and apologize. A major part of the process is disclosure, and this is that.

Though our former writer handed in the plagiarized content written by others with his byline placed on the top, it was we, the editors, who placed the articles on the page, printed up thousands of copies and distributed them to our readers. We’re the supposed gatekeepers who hired the writer and whose dereliction allowed this to go on, however unknowingly.

It wasn’t until Saturday, Oct. 21 that on a whim, we compared an article supposedly by the sports editor to an online press release written by Andrew Goetz of Humboldt State Athletics. The article and the press release were almost identical, with only a few minor alterations. We then went over other articles and noticed a pattern.

By the next day and to our horror, the Union had confirmed the embarrassing truth – we had printed several pieces that were largely or partially plagiarized. It was mea culpa time. An editorial documenting the betrayal of trust – to us and you – appeared in the Oct. 25 edition and online.

The next job, undertaken after putting last week’s edition to bed, was to examine every story written by the former sports editor. He’d worked as an independent contractor for the Union from June 21 to Oct. 23.  About 41 articles of his were published during this time. We compared them to press releases issued by Humboldt State Athletics. We also used Google and plagiarism-detection websites that scan the Internet and identify duplicated verbiage.

The stealing snowballs

From June through August, the writer’s work consisted of 100 percent original content, as best we can determine. These included a half-dozen articles about the Humboldt Crabs, a feature about a dodgeball tournament in McKinleyville, then nine articles previewing fall sports at the end of August. We were pleased with the content. For the first time, the Mad River Union had a bona fide Sports section.

It wasn’t until September that problems arose. The first case of plagiarism we found appeared in the Sept. 6 edition. It was an article with our sports editor’s byline headlined “After football fiesta, HSU faces league champion in big test.” The piece includes several paragraphs that are extremely similar to ones in a press release written by Andrew Goetz of HSU Athletics. While substantially rewritten, the work is far too similar to be any kind of coincidence.

The following editions, Sept. 13 and Sept. 20, featured sports articles that appear to be wholly original work.

The plagiarism kicked back into high gear in the Sept. 27 edition. An article with our sports editor’s byline on it, headlined “Nationally ranked HSU squeaks by Western Oregon,” was almost entirely lifted from a bylined press release written, once again, by Mr. Goetz.

The Oct. 4 edition featured two plagiarized articles. “HSU’s secondary steals the show against Chadron State” includes several paragraphs plagiarized from a press release written by Goetz,  an unattributed quote taken from The Daily Gamecock (a student newspaper at the University of North South Carolina) and two paragraphs taken from the Chadron State College Athletics website, used without attribution.

In the same edition, the article headlined “HSU women kick it in gear with win,” contains paragraph after paragraph taken from a press release written by Kenneth McCanless of HSU Athletics.

The plagiarism continued without interruption for two more weeks. Articles headlined “Volleyball crumbles against San Marcos” and “Jacks tumble from ranks of unbeaten Central Washington,”  in the Oct. 11 edition were both plagiarized from press releases written by Goetz and McCanless.

The Oct. 18 newspaper, the final edition in which our former sports editor’s articles were published, included a heavily plagiarized article, “Heart Attack Jacks resurface for another overtime win,” and one mostly original article, “Jacks win homecoming shootout against Cougars,” which included a paragraph that was questionable – it was similar to one that appeared in an HSU press release, but slightly altered.

The Saturday after that edition came out, we at the Union discovered the ruse and the jig was up. A new batch of articles, some plagiarized, came in from our former sports editor, but these never saw print. At this point, we parted ways with the individual and ended our plagiarism-infested Sports section.

The terrible tally

Of the 41 articles that our former sports editor wrote and that we published, 31 appear to be original content without any plagiarized content, that we can tell.

Three articles contain some content that appears to have been lifted from another source, but was altered enough that reasonable people may disagree as to whether attribution was required.

That leaves seven articles that were clearly plagiarized, about one-sixth of the total. They include large amounts of content written and signed by someone else but stripped of proper attribution, and rebranded with our sports editor’s name.

Seventeen percent of the work was laced with stolen verbiage. Translate that into your job. Imagine about  1.36 hours of an eight-hour work shift, or 6.8 hours out of your 40-hour work week that another person is also claiming as their work, and getting paid for it.

We’re a little blurry-eyed from painstakingly going over all the articles and comparing content from various sources, so it’s possible we missed something. If we did, and you know about it, please let us know. Actually, if you see anything in the paper you think is ill-founded, say so!

Most writers, certainly professional reporters, don’t need to be told not to plagiarize. But as a precaution, henceforth the Union will tell current and future writers flat out not to copy and paste other people’s writing and put their names on it, to regularly change their socks and underwear and to never do evil, because we now know that for some reason, we have to.

And if they call us “Bro” a little too frequently, scores of red flags will schwing up and klaxons will blare in our heads.

Not ballsy, just perfunctory

We’ve gotten undeserved praise for our expedited disclosure of the plagiarism, and assumption of responsibility.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the deteriorated standards and low expectations of our media-distrusting times, but it’s not particularly admirable, noble or “ballsy” to have notified readers of this ethical and procedural meltdown.

No. In any rational world, this is what you do. It’s baseline; you can’t not do this. Cleaning up broken crockery off the kitchen floor after folks have already walked on it oughtn’t earn you any medals.

Feel free to offer lavish praise when we report the ugly news on some ruthless, big-money industry, or go deep on a scandal the powers that be want hushed up, or make a courageous foray into the war-torn Manila Community Services District’s monthly meeting. That we’ll accept.

But seriously, we screwed up, it sucks and again, we’re sorry.


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