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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Public editor: We investigate all complaints against our writers Add to ...

This week, an anonymous blogger raised the possibility that a high-profile columnist used phrases or sentences similar to others’ work and failed to attribute properly the work of an author. And very quickly, some journalists and others responded on Twitter forwarding those concerns from the anonymous blogger.

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I investigated the matter, spoke with the columnist, Margaret Wente, and her editor, endeavoured to find all of the original documents and read all but one. (I’ve ordered the last one.) In the end, there appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count.

It is very difficult to be more definitive because we are talking about a column written three years and two months ago. This from a columnist who writes three times a week. The concern was that seven different sources were reproduced. That seems highly unlikely. I’ve ordered the original Food Chemical News report from March, 2008, and Ms. Wente doesn’t believe she had ever read that, or a similar column by The Ottawa Citizen written a year earlier, or a press release from a U.S. college -- all of which were referred to in the anonymous blog.

This was a column in July, 2009, about Professor Robert Paarlberg’s book Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa.

Here’s what Ms. Wente had to say about the concerns: “It was more than three years ago that I wrote that particular column. It was based on Professor Robert Paarlberg’s book which I read before writing the column. I read his New York Times article on the same subject, and I also read, among other sources, and quoted from Paul Collier’s article in Foreign Affairs. My intention was to synthesize Mr. Paarlberg’s argument for readers and, of course, give him credit for them. I made it clear that the thesis was his but in hindsight, I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer that some paraphrasing came from his work.”

As a result, The Globe and Mail is adding a line to the original column in its electronic archives that says: “Editor’s Note: This column contains thoughts and statements by Professor Robert Paarlberg which are paraphrased and not always clearly identified.”

It is worth noting that The Globe and Mail investigates all complaints, although sometimes it takes a little time to properly look into these matters. We have looked into all of the complaints raised by the anonymous blogger regarding Ms. Wente and other writers at The Globe and Mail and made corrections or clarifications where information was incorrect or unclear.

In addition, we are members of the Ontario Press Council, a body of public members along with independent industry people, who investigate all complaints brought before them. If they rule against a newspaper, the newspaper must publish their ruling.

If you want to comment, please do so below. If you want to send me an e-mail, please send it to publiceditor@globeandmail.com.

Editor's note: The blogger did not charge that the work of others was copied. Imprecise language in an earlier version of this column has been changed.

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

 

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