Here’s Margaret Wente on slipping standards, lazy students and overpaid teachers: “When I was a kid…if you were caught plagiarizing, you got a zero”.
So after what’s been dubbed American journalism’s "summer of sin", maybe it’s time to ask: Should Ms. Wente herself - one of Canada’s best known columnists – ‘get a zero for plagiarism’?
The question has been asked before (here and here, and elsewhere on this blog). In fact, a recent example led to an earlier Margaret Wente column on the same topic. Enviro-romanticism is hurting Africa, which we'll look at below, shows substantial overlap with five other writers – similarities in structure and content, and significant amounts of identical and near identical, prose. So as teachers warn their students about plagiarism at the beginning of the school year, we’ll look closely at this example as Lesson One, and ask what kind of grade it should get.
Let’s start by comparing it with an earlier article by the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner.
In addition to other overlaps, one paragraph in Wente’s July 2009 column blaming Western ‘elites’ for African starvation is almost identical to Gardner’s 2008 article on Robert Paarlberg. Unlike Wente, Gardner indicates that he interviewed Professor Paarlberg, author of a book called Starved for Science. Wente, who, as we’ll see later, relies heavily on Paarlberg right from her opening paragraph, doesn’t mention the professor until at least halfway through her article - and then as a kind of afterthought - supporting what she seems to present as her own ideas and research. When she finally gets around to mentioning him, she reproduces sentences that appeared in Gardner’s article, but without the quotation marks he had placed around Paarlberg’s words - thereby presenting some of that material as her own. The first sentence is a close paraphrase. The second is identical - except for Wente’s dropped punctuation (bold and italic changes in all examples are added for comparison purposes).
Gardner: "Many NGOs working in Africa in the area of development and the environment have been advocating against the modernization of traditional farming practices," Paarlberg says. "They believe that traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn't be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside. They encourage Africa to stay away from fertilizers, and be certified as organic instead. And in the case of genetic engineering, they warn African governments against making these technologies available to farmers."
Wente: Yet, many NGOs working in Africa have tenaciously fought the modernization of traditional farming practices. They believe traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn't be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside. As Prof. Paarlberg writes, "They encourage African farmers to stay away from fertilizers and be certified organic instead. And they warn African governments to stay away from genetic engineering. They want to freeze African farms where they are. It's a fantasy of what agriculture ought to be like."
Here Wente’s ending differs from Gardner’s. I can’t find those sentences in Paarlberg’s writing, but they are identical to what appeared Stephen Clapp’s 2008 report on Paarlberg’s speech to a food policy seminar in Washington (no link available):
Steve Clapp, Food Chemical News, March 24, 2008: “They want to freeze African farms where they are. It's a fantasy of what agriculture ought to be like."
While the above bit involves what Paarlberg ostensibly said (or, as Wente claims, wrote), examples below involve Clapp’s prose. Wente doesn’t credit Clapp – she just offers something very close to his summary of Paarlberg’s speech.
Steve Clapp, Food Chemical News: “Cultural elites”…equate agricultural science with large farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of agribusiness corporations, and unpalatable and unhealthy food.
Wente: Their cultural elites equate agricultural science with huge commercial farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of evil agribusiness corporations and unhealthy food.
Clapp: …Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) campaign against nitrogen fertilizer in Africa despite soil nutrient deficits… “NGOs call the Green Revolution a tragedy,” he said.
Wente: …Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements have waged long campaigns against nitrogen fertilizer in Africa, despite its poor soil. They called the Green Revolution… a tragedy.
And in the fourth example, quotation marks migrate again, capturing some of Clapp’s writing.
Clapp: "These criticisms are fair in Europe and North America," but devastating to Africa and other impoverished regions, he added.
Wente: "These criticisms are fair in Europe and North America, but they are devastating to Africa and other impoverished nations," he writes.
Material very similar to Mac Margolis’ story in Newsweek also shows up:
Newsweek, March 2009: environmental pressure groups warned that pollen from doctored crops could contaminate conventional plantings or provoke ecological blowback in the form of superweeds… In Britain, where Prince Charles recently called GM foods "the biggest disaster, environmentally, of all time…”
Wente: More extreme groups warned that pollen from doctored crops could contaminate conventional plantings or create superweeds. Prince Charles called GM foods "the biggest disaster, environmentally, of all time."
And in Wente’s opening paragraphs (again, well before she even mentions Paarlberg), there’s material similar to both the press release for his book, and Clapp’s report:
Wente: In Africa today, farmers are producing 20 per cent less food than they were 35 years ago. A third of the population is malnourished. Sixty per cent of the population consists of smallholder farmers, mostly women, who typically earn a dollar a day or less.
Wellesley College Press Release: On a per-capita basis, Paarlberg notes, Africa produces 20 percent less food today than it did 35 years ago….two thirds of all citizens are poor farmers… they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.
Clapp: Paarlberg noted that 60% of the population consists of smallholder farmers, mostly women, earning a dollar a day or less. A third of the population is malnourished, and farmers are producing 20% less food than 35 years ago.
More significantly, Wente reproduces (at times almost verbatim) some of Paarlberg’s central arguments – all before she mentions him. The wording is strikingly similar to remarks he made to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. No quotation marks or credit given - Wente simply presents this material as her own prose and analysis. Referring to NGOs, she writes:
Wente: They have even campaigned against conventionally developed modern seeds and nitrogen fertilizers, even though these are the very same technologies Western farmers embraced to become more productive and escape poverty.
Paarlberg Testimony: they also campaigned against conventionally developed modern seeds and nitrogen fertilizers, even though these were precisely the technologies their own farmers had earlier used back home to become more productive and escape poverty.
Wente: The irony is that most farmers in Africa already are organic.
Paarlberg Testimony: The irony is that most farmers in Africa today are
already defacto organic.
That NGO policies are misguided, and that malnourished Africa is organic farming writ large is Paarlberg’s central argument – one he makes in an editorial published in The New York Times. Though late in her column Wente finally gets around to noting Paarlberg’s book, she never mentions his NYT article – even though her own column is similar. Wente sets up her introduction in the same way as the NYT piece; he begins with observations about his students while Wente offers similar anecdotes about friends who support organic farming. Paarlberg’s follow up line – “the irony is that most farmers in Africa today are already defacto organic” – is very effective writing, which Wente adopts and presents almost verbatim. Separate NYT facts and observations are also condensed in Wente’s piece - with similar wording.
NYT: Eighty percent of the labor on these farms is done by women and children…(...the weeding is done by children who would be better off in school…)…There is no power machinery… and only 4 percent of crops are irrigated…The animals - mostly cattle and goats - forage for their own food.
Wente: Eighty per cent of the labour on these farms is done by women and their children, who would be better off in school. They have no power machinery, no irrigation, no chemical fertilizer, no herbicides. Their animals are scrawny and diseased.
NYT: To serve maize meal (called nsima) to her family, an African woman must first spend a season planting, weeding, harvesting and storing her corn, then she must strip it, winnow it, soak it… cook it over a fire.
Wente: To serve a maize meal to her family, a woman must work gruellingly hard.
Later, after finally mentioning Paarlberg’s book, Wente reproduces more passages that appeared in the NYT – again enclosing only half of Paarlberg’s remarks in quotation marks and effectively presenting the rest as her own.
Wente: Wealthy countries are imposing the richest of tastes on the poorest of people, Prof. Paarlberg argues…"The rich are, in effect, telling Africa's farmers they should just as well remain poor."
NYT: …wealthy countries are imposing the richest of tastes on the poorest of people. The rich are, in effect, telling Africa's farmers they should just as well remain poor.
And she again includes, without citing or quoting him, wording very similar to Paarlberg’s:
Wente: Nor has "organic" farming provided any protection to the rural environment, which has been seriously degraded by deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss caused by the relentless expansion of low-yield farming.
Paarlberg Testimony: Nor has it provided any protection to Africa's rural environment, where deforestation, soil erosion, and habitat loss caused by the relentless expansion of low-yield farming is a growing crisis.
Migrating quotation marks (common in some of Wente’s other articles) also occur when she mentions Paul Collier’s article in Foreign Affairs: she again drops the quotation marks for half the excerpt – taking the best lines for herself, and encloses only the remainder; the expert’s truncated quote is now enlisted to support what appears as her own analysis and phrasing.
Paul Collier, Foreign Affairs: The romantics have portrayed the food crisis as demonstrating the failure of scientific commercial agriculture... In its place, they advocate the return to organic small-scale farming—counting on abandoned technologies to feed a prospective world population of 9 billion.
Wente: …the environmental romantics… portrayed the food crisis as a failure of scientific commercial agriculture. As Paul Collier, the well-known Africa development expert, writes in Foreign Affairs: "In its place they advocate the return to organic small-scale farming - counting on abandoned technologies to feed a prospective world population of nine billion."
Collier: With the near-total urbanization of these classes in both the United States and Europe, rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure… Far from being the answer to global poverty, organic self-sufficiency is a luxury lifestyle. It is appropriate for burnt-out investment bankers, not for hungry families.
Wente: With the near-total urbanization of affluent Western consumers, he writes, "rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure. ... The first giant that must be slain is the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture." Far from being the answer to global poverty, organic self-sufficiency is a luxury lifestyle. "It is appropriate for burnt-out investment bankers, not for hungry families," he writes.
And this paragraph –which again appears before Wente has introduced Paarlberg - is startling in what is omitted, and in the way that omission effectively appropriates the Paarlberg’s work:
Before you dismiss this indictment as Big Agribusiness agitprop, I should tell you that two Nobel Peace Prize winners agree with every word. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who has a deep commitment to African issues, write that new crop biotechnologies do not pose any risks to human health or the environment. They blame the relentless campaign against the development of African agriculture on the "worrisome ignorance" of rich people in the West. "This is a rich-world argument that is hurting the poor," they say. "Responsible biotechnology is not our enemy. Hunger and starvation are."
The “this” she’s referring to here is not Paarlberg’s thesis (he has not even appeared in her column yet). Rather, it’s her (at times identical) version of Paarlberg’s, Clapp’s and others’ words or arguments - which she has presented thus far as her own. Now she summons Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug - who wrote those particular words as the foreword to Paarlberg’s book - to endorse what she has effectively up to that point presented as her own work.
The Ottawa Citizen version makes it more clear.
Gardner: One of the foreword's authors is Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. The other is former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Both are Nobel Peace Prize winners. Both are humanitarians who have saved countless lives. And both say Paarlberg is right.
And while not verbatim, there’s more overlap with Gardner’s article.
Gardner: The NGO-led campaign against genetically modified organisms has been particularly successful. African elites have become so convinced that GMOs are dangerous to human health -- despite reams of evidence to the contrary -- that the president of Zambia once referred to them as "poison."
Wente: The anti-biotech forces won a huge victory when the European Union banned genetically modified foods in 1996. Then they went to work on Africa… Anti-biotech groups told African leaders that donated maize from the United States was poison…
It appears then, that much of this article is borrowed from other writers without proper attribution, including the central ideas of others, a significant amount of identical or near identical prose, and strangely absent or migrating quotation marks. So what kind of grade should it get?
Like journalists, kids who plagiarize are sometimes excused if it’s deemed to be “an isolated incident”. But what if it’s a pattern? And what if the pattern is tolerated (by editors or teachers)? Some of Ms. Wente’s earlier lapses have been addressed reluctantly - through corrections or Editor’s Notes (direct response from the Globe has been frosty). But errors also raise larger issues – like "John", who Wente presented as the ‘face’ of the Occupy protests. John’s bio and quotes also appeared in her work without attribution (they had previously shown up on a couple of American websites in a different context). Sadly, it turned out John had nothing to do with the protests: Ms. Wente effectively invented an Occupy protester. Is that any less egregious than Jonah Lehrer’s invented Bob Dylan quote? A recent column again reproduced material from a blogger without attribution, raising questions about how journalists make use of new media like blogs, and what standards apply.
But when the Globe's own media columnist says that even “lifted quotations from other writers” is “wrong”, and when high profile plagiarists like Maureen Dowd are raked over the coals for less than what we see in this column (and others) by Margaret Wente, I think it’s fair to ask why this prominent and well paid columnist should get a pass when she argues so strenuously that students who plagiarize should “get a zero”.