|When teenage German novelist Helene Hegemann, whose debut novel has become a runaway bestseller in Germany, was accused of plagiarizing parts of her story, she defended her work by saying that she’d repackaged the “borrowed” content into another form, much like a band or musical artist might sample (i.e., incorporate) the music of another musical artist into a song. The story exploded in the European media after a German blogger accused Hegemann of improperly lifting parts of her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, wholesale from another blogger’s content. |
The controversy has also been covered in-depth in the U.S. and Canada. In a story by New York Times reporter Nicholas Kulish, the blogger who exposed Hegemann’s “borrowings” was in no mood to forgive the young novelist: “To take an entire page from an author, as Helene Hegemann admitted to doing, with only slight changes and without asking the author, I consider that illegitimate,” he told Kulish. According to The Local, an English-language Web site covering German news, Hegemann expressed her disagreement to a German newspaper: “I myself don’t feel it is stealing,” she said, “because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context” (i.e., her novel). Despite the dispute, Hegemann’s novel continues to sell well and she’s been nominated for an important fiction prize in her native Germany.Ironically, at the same moment The New York Times was covering the Hegemann plagiarism scandal, the newspaper was caught in its own plagiarism controversy.
On the same day that The Wall Street Journal posted a story on financial fraudster Bernard Madoff, much of the same content appeared on one of the Times’ blogs. The managing editor of the Journal, Robert Thomson, sent a letter of complaint to his editorial counterpart at the Times, Bill Keller. Thomson’s letter asserted that Times blogger and business reporter Zachery Kouwe had copied “a significant proportion of an article by Wall Street Journal reporter Amir Efrati.” Thomson cited six passages from Efrati’s Journal article that Kouwe had taken almost verbatim.
Within days, the Times editors posted a message on its Web site admitting that Kouwe had indeed “borrowed” content without attributing the Journal. Kouwe would later admit (in The New York Observer) that, “I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring.” Kouwe ultimately resigned. Clearly, the immediate availability of news from so many online sources has speeded up the news cycle. Instead of having a day to “catch up” on a story, news organizations now have minutes or hours.
And the ease of “borrowing” another writer’s work has never been easier (it takes but a few mouse clicks with any word processor’s “cut and paste” function). There’s enormous pressure on reporters (who increasingly post work online) to keep readers updated almost by the minute on big news.With huge recent shifts in technology, news stories get circulated almost instantly. Google and other Web sites generally aggregate (or collect) news, but don’t create original content. Writing an original news story is expensive, labor-intensive (reporters need to make phone calls, ask questions, confirm rumors, etc.) and time-consuming. For years the Web has been in the practice of “borrowing” news, as bloggers link to a news story and then make a few comments about it. This kind of piggybacking on original content isn’t plagiarism, as long as the original sources get attributed, but it has created a free-riding climate of reliance on somebody else’s legwork.
It’s not a growth in plagiarism that we’re witnessing in the Hegemann or Kouwe examples, but (alas) the decreasing relevance of original content generated by old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism and/or time-intensive creativity.