Three years ago, I wrote a column about the controversy surrounding the introduction of genetically modified foods into Africa. It focused on the work of Robert Paarlberg, a U.S. academic who had written a book called Starved for Science. GM foods are a hot topic, and the column drew a lot of heat.
But now it – and I – are the subject of a bigger controversy. A blogger has accused me of substantively plagiarizing the column, and much else. The allegations have exploded in the Twitterverse and prompted harsh commentary from other writers, some of whom are characterizing me as a serial plagiarist. The Globe and Mail’s Public Editor responded to these allegations last week, but now it’s time for me to respond directly.
I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.
There are three allegations against me. One is that I stole the idea and the substance of the column from Dan Gardner, who writes for the Ottawa Citizen and other papers. The second is that the piece was a cut-and-paste job that lacked proper attribution and passed off others’ ideas as my own. The third is that I am a serial offender whose work is riddled with errors, and worse.
Let me take these in order.
It’s true that Mr. Gardner wrote a column in 2008 about Prof. Paarlberg and his book. I now realize I read that column before I wrote my own on the subject more than a year later. Did I get the idea from Mr. Gardner? I don’t think so. And Prof. Paarlberg isn’t terribly obscure; his name tends to crop up along with those of other experts who are critical of Western aid efforts. He’s also a well-known critic of those trying to block the development of GM foods. I have a strong interest in both subjects, so his name and work were bound to catch my eye.
I read Prof. Paarlberg’s book, as well as other material by and about him. I concluded, as did Mr. Gardner, that his arguments are important. Columnists often write about the same subjects and often reach similar conclusions. That isn’t plagiarism. But there is a sentence from Mr. Gardner’s column that also appears in my column. The only explanation is that I put it in my notes, then put it in my column. That was extremely careless and, for that, I apologize.
My column summarized Prof. Paarlberg’s main arguments and gave readers enough general background to understand the issue. This material was drawn from his book, as well as from his other writings and some of his public remarks. Some of the other allegations turn on the fact that I didn’t name the exact source of every quote I used, that I used some of Prof. Paarlberg’s explanatory material without attributing enough of it to him, and that I moved in and out of quoted material too freely.
There was no intent to deceive. My column was rooted in his work research and observations, and I never pretended otherwise. My aim was to be conversational and readable, and to present the gist of his work – not to pass off other people’s words or ideas as my own. Journalistic practice around quotations and attribution has become far more cautious in the past few years, and mine has, too. If I were writing that column again today, I would quote and attribute more carefully.
Journalists know they’re under the microscope. If you appropriate other people’s work, you’re going to get nailed. Even so, sometimes we slip up. That isn’t an excuse. It’s just the way it is.
As for errors in my other work, I’ve made my share and then some. I hope that most of them haven’t been too serious.
And now, some necessary background. The current firestorm started with a blogger named Carol Wainio, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a self-styled media watchdog. She has been publicly complaining about my work for years. Her website, Media Culpa, is an obsessive list of accusations involving alleged plagiarism, factual errors, attribution lapses and much else. She has more than once accused me of stealing the work of other writers with whom I happen to share an opinion.
Globe editors have spent countless hours reviewing every complaint from her, and have been quick to correct the record when warranted. The Globe has also published a letter from her that was critical of my work. Her latest allegations, over a column that is three years old, were retweeted by a number of people who didn’t bother to think twice – or ask for a response – before helping her to smear my reputation.
I haven’t always lived up to my own standards. I’m sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences. But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm. Most of all, I regret the trouble I’ve created for my Globe colleagues by giving any opening at all to my many critics. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any openings. In the real world, there are.