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.  


  1. As a former educator, lover of ideas and those who toil hard to produce original ones I applaud your efforts to set record straight on literary crime and ideas theft. I cannot read Wente out of anger at the disrespect she shows to the writing profession. Shame on the Globe who keep her on because she's paid by the number of clicks, popular because of button pushing but lazy and unethical.

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  2. Shame on the globe and mail

  3. Thank you for this. Wente seems to be a bad combination of bigoted and lazy, and it is most reassuring to know that there are people who have enough reach to make a difference and a willingness to call her (and her editors) on her complete BS.

  4. I found many similar problems with another recent piece as well. The link to the article and the original is below.

    I read the article in the Guardian several days beforehand and was struck by the similarities.

    While the author in the Guardian is cited, the entire piece by Wente, is at best, a summary. She even copied all of the same citations and displayed them in her piece as if she did the research herself.

    I find it ridiculous that she can sustain a career by re-packaging the painstaking created, and trending work of her colleagues in such a lazy fashion.

  5. Uh-oh. I think Wente is a lousy writer. But….does that now mean that it isn't Wente at all that's the lousy writer but the array of writers from whom she lifts are lousy writers?

  6. I posted this comment on the G&M comments thread, but they rejected it, it seems (along with another comment on the matter). Here it is:

    A writer who is flippant with their prose is no less flippant with their ideas. At some point, you have to wonder: would it matter if the G&M simply employed some kind of algorithm to produce its columns? It won't be too long, right? (Think of Tay "the Racist" Chatbox -- how long until these algorithms start producing full-length articles?) It seems pretty clear to me that the human writer in question, Ms Wente, is simply pulling a Tay (minus the racist screed), and that she really doesn't care about the issues that she purports to champion, but rather is a professional echo-box, peddling the same four or five narratives again and again, but with a different set of reconfigured prose each time. It is bound to happen every so often that the algorithm breaks down from time to time, and fails to properly scramble a sentence or two that's been lifted from elsewhere.

    BTW: good job on spotting this, but has found a couple other cases too.

  7. There is no valid reason that G&M couldn't run ALL text through a plagiarism-detection programs; there are many available. They could even post the scorecards of the reviews on-line to distinguish the original writers from the rest.

  8. What a ridiculous argument. Wente is obviously a target because she speaks truths that you don't want to hear or agree with. Her comments about the dangerous Leapers are accurate whether you like them or not. Welcome to the Dark Ages.


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