Saturday, April 23, 2016

Margaret Wente: Plagiarism then – and now?

Margaret Wente begins her article "The great global greening is happening now" with an anecdote about bears encroaching on her romantic country retreat north of Toronto.  Her fourth paragraph begins,  “Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature”. 

Jesse Ausubel begins his article, "The return of nature" with an anecdote about the return of bears to the Apshawa Preserve in New Jersey.  His fourth paragraph begins,  “Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature”

Ms. Wente does not put Ausubel’s sentence in quotes. Four paragraphs later, she mentions him, and remarkably, links to his article.  One wonders if her editors checked the link.  Apart from the identical sentence, further similar material not enclosed in quotes, and some wording identical to a different author at the end of her column, the opening seems, to a non-expert at least, embarrassingly similar to Ausubel. 

But this is classic Wente;  start with a few paragraphs of folksy anecdote which make it seem that what follows arises from some personal insight.  Add some easy swipes at “elites”, academics and environmentalists, and some filler from the New York Times or any number of sources. 

Again before mentioning Mr. Ausubel, Wente observes:

“One recent study found that high-yield farmers in the European Union increased their yields by 22 per cent while also reducing their chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent.”

Ausubel writes that this study:
 funded by the German government and the European Union, found a 37 percent decline in chemical pesticide use while crop yields rose 22 percent”.
Had she included in quotation marks his material, she would have avoided the error she makes in suggesting the global meta data analysis to which he refers was a study of only European Union farmers.  Further on, more paraphrase without direct attribution.

Wente: If we can get a grip on food waste, stop producing corn to feed cars, boost yields to the level of the most productive farmers and eat more food that is efficient to produce… we could liberate an area the size of India from agricultural production.

Ausubel: If we keep lifting average yields…stop feeding corn to cars, restrain our diets lightly, and reduce waste, then an area the size of India or of the United States east of the Mississippi could be released globally from agriculture over the next 50 years or so.

Towards the end of her column, Wente also appears to borrow from an earlier article by Maywa Montenegro, a researcher at Berkley (emphasis added): 

“Very few technologies truly merit the epithet “game changer” — but a new genetic engineering tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 is one of them...With CRISPR (the technology’s shorthand name), precision and speed have soared…CRISPR opens the door to all kinds of potential food production improvements”.


“And now we have a new game-changer, in the form of a revolutionary gene-editing tool called CRISPR. This tool (whose name is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) offers a new level of speed, precision and versatility, and opens the door to vast new food production improvements”.

Ms. Wente doesn’t cite or link to Montenegro’s article – which is informative, nuanced and less celebratory, but instead ‘leaps’ to a surprising conclusion.

There are certainly very legitimate criticisms to be made of the Leap Manifesto.  It should be noted though, that the document does not appear to mention GMO or food production, so it’s difficult to find anything substantive in Ms. Wente’s borrowings to convince readers that its authors “would rather have the world’s billions eating mouldy, stunted potatoes that exhaust the soil and suck up all the water”, though no doubt certain readers enjoyed her image of forcing Naomi Klein and other ‘elites’ to “try it for themselves”.

While not as extensive as previous instances of plagiarism, it’s reasonable to ask to what extent The Globe condones certain practices on the part of certain writers.  Last night, I observed to a friend who mentioned Ms. Wente that I’d stopped reading her quite a while ago.  Today I clicked.  Certainly the adolescent quality of her swipes at environmentalists remains.  Despite these, she herself seems to remain dedicated to recycling.