For Plagiarists, The Internet Is A Double-Edged Sword

Movies

If you're on a deadline, and you need to produce written content, the internet makes it ridiculously fast and easy to rip other writers off.

But people who live by the sword also die by it. Once someone suspects plagiarism, the internet makes it easy to search for other people who used your words first. It also makes it easy to spot-check your other work to see if any of it appears lifted from prior sources without attribution. Finally, once plagiarism is detected, the internet — full, as it is, of both successful and frustrated writers — makes word of the misconduct spread like wildfire.

This week's example: the Movie Junkies.

John Scalzi — who hates plagiarism the way you hate Hitler and the way I hate reality TV — writes the Alpha post, noting that MaryAnn Johanson's review of a film — appropriately enough, "Shame" — was plagiarized at MovieJunkies. As Scalzi notes in an update, MovieJunkies has now edited that review, leaving an incoherent mess that still has elements of the plagiarized work. A screenshot is here, and the sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other errors are in the original:

A powerful plunge into the mania of sex addiction. The feelings of isolation and all-consuming need so piercingly in “Shame”. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a New Yorker who shuns intimacy with women but feeds his desires with a compulsive addiction to sex. His troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment stirring memories of their shared painful past and Brandon’s insular life spirals out of control. Sissy is her brother’s polar opposite, and she proceeds to invade his carefully cultivated privacy.

Shame offers something different than I have ever seen on screen in a main stream movie. For the first a main stream audience can see a man with extreme vulnerability. Fassbender is exceptional is expressing is misery and utter weakness in the fight against his obsession and addiction. Most movies that are available to the mass audiences protect the male image and ego. Even male nudity is treated much more tabu than female nudity.

The only issue I had with the direction was that some shots were held for too long where I got a little bored numerous times throughout the movie.

Movie Junkie Rating: GOOD BUZZ :) Note: GREAT HIGH for Fassbender’s performance!

Now comes the part where other writers — and their fans — start looking for other instances of plagiarism. Scalzi's commenters are off to a good start and have found some strong candidates for plagiarism. Mike McGranaghan of Aisleseat indicates he has screencaps of six reviews plagiarized from him, and is tracking down plagiarism of other writers. Things are swiftly becoming very grim for MovieJunkies. The plagiarism is looking serial and pervasive rather than isolated.

Using the comment form on the MovieJunkies web site, I asked for a comment, indicating that I write about various forms of internet misbehavior and wondered if they had a comment about allegations they had plagiarized multiple articles. Here's the response I got — which I feel comfortable sharing because I made it clear I was writing to get a comment for a blog post:

Hello Ken,

I cannot apologize enough.

It seems some of my views that I passed onto to one of my staff to post on the site have used other sources that should not have been included. I should have looked more carefully and we do so in the future. I apologize for this error. We have removed the requests that have been sent to us.

Please let me know if you see anything else and I will gladly remove it immediately.

Thank you very much.
Sincerely,
Michele Schalin

I find this incoherent and unconvincing. To the extent one can parse the main sentence, it's very difficult to believe. Is she saying that she voiced views that happened to incorporate the exact language of other writers' work, and her staff wrote it verbatim? Or that she referred to other writers' work, and they copied it verbatim? It's impenetrable, particularly for someone who supposedly writes professionally. Moreover, it's not believable. The hasty and incompetent editing of challenged posts — which as of now lack any apology or acknowledgement — suggests a guilty conscience, not an innocent error. The number of posts at issue, discussed above, also makes any innocent excuse hard to accept.

The people who run Movie Junkies are poised on a knife's edge. If they handle this situation correctly, with a convincing display to the extent that critics are mistaken, or (more likely) with abject apologies and acceptances of responsibility, the site might survive, even after this goes viral. If they take a dishonest, self-righteous, or evasive approach, they are done: curb-stomped by the internet they used as a source for stolen text. Just ask Judith Griggs

(If memory serves I learned of Griggs from Scalzi, too. Don't plagiarize around Scalzi. Just . . don't.)

Edited to add: another plagiarism victim.

Edited to add: Mike McGranaghan tells his story, and notes that the Movie Junkies site and Facebook page are down.

Edited to add: Eric Snyder talks about how the site plagiarized him, and about his correspondence with Michele Schalin.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Matthew Cline  •  Mar 28, 2012 @11:17 am

    It seems some of my views that I passed onto to one of my staff to post on the site have used other sources that should not have been included.

    I parse it as meaning "I voiced an opinion which a staffer misinterpreted as being an instruction to plagiarize".

  2. TJIC  •  Mar 28, 2012 @11:25 am

    > I parse it as meaning "I voiced an opinion which a staffer misinterpreted as being an instruction to plagiarize".

    I parsed it as "I voiced an opinion of the movie and told a staffer to 'flesh it out' into an article…and the staffer searched out a full review and plagiarized it".

  3. Damon  •  Mar 28, 2012 @11:51 am

    In other words: I didn't do it / I'm not responsible. Mistakes were made….

    Utter BS…

  4. Wilhelm Arcturus  •  Mar 28, 2012 @12:23 pm

    I miss Judith Griggs, back when plagiarism was not just open, but brazen, and non-apologizes were long, self-serving, and comically ham-fisted.

    Movie Junkies seems to be saying, "Yes, we realize we have plagiarized, but are not so concerned about it that we'll do our own internal review or anything. We're pretty sure it will all just blow over."

    And, in an unrelated topic, did anybody see those pictures of the Titanic in National Geographic this month? I was struck by the pile of deck chairs visible on one section of the ship, looking for all the world to have not been re-arranged in any way.

  5. Andrew  •  Mar 28, 2012 @2:04 pm

    In the annals of recently unveiled plagiarists, Movie Junkies has nothing on Daria Novak, who has adopted the "I did nothing wrong, I just didn't want to inconvenience you with my copious footnotes" defense.

  6. EH  •  Mar 28, 2012 @3:27 pm

    I don't know if you've checked lately, but the Cooks Source site…as well as the @cookssource Twitter account…are all vamoosed.

  7. Laura K  •  Mar 28, 2012 @5:01 pm

    Oh my GOD it's SOOO Henry II: "Arrgh! Will nobody rid me of this troublesome deadline? (Either through wholeslale slaughter of an archbishop and/or plagarism, y'know, whatever you can do first?)"

  8. SPQR  •  Mar 28, 2012 @5:03 pm

    I didn't know that Joe Biden did movie reviews under a pseudonym.

  9. Shylock Holmes  •  Mar 28, 2012 @5:50 pm

    It seems that

    "I write for a modestly-trafficked blog that frequently discusses issues regarding [X]. I write to request a comment on a report regarding your conduct."

    seems to be the Popehat version of:

    "I'm Chris Hansen from NBC. Would you like to tell us what you're doing here?"

  10. Ken  •  Mar 28, 2012 @5:54 pm

    It seems that

    "I write for a modestly-trafficked blog that frequently discusses issues regarding [X]. I write to request a comment on a report regarding your conduct."

    seems to be the Popehat version of:

    "I'm Chris Hansen from NBC. Would you like to tell us what you're doing here?"

    This is my favorite comment in — well, it's top five material.

  11. KronWeld  •  Mar 28, 2012 @7:07 pm

    Speaking of Judith Griggs, I found this article where it mentions that Monica Gaudio did not publish all of Judith's e-mail do to a copy right notice on the e-mail. First time I hear about that.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/you-20/201011/are-cooks-source-magazine-and-judith-griggs-innocent

  12. KronWeld  •  Mar 28, 2012 @7:09 pm

    … First time I heard about that. … My kingdom for a preview button! Or an edit button.

  13. Runanide  •  Mar 28, 2012 @8:37 pm

    Come on, Ken. Fry bigger fish.

  14. Shylock Holmes  •  Mar 28, 2012 @8:53 pm

    @Ken Thanks, you're too kind!

  15. Ken  •  Mar 28, 2012 @9:04 pm

    @Runanide: Eh. I hate plagiarists. And she's a marketeer too.

  16. jb  •  Mar 28, 2012 @10:06 pm

    I read "some of my views" as "some of my reviews," as in "I got these reviews from somewhere, told my staffer to post them, and oops they were plagiarized" and Ms. Schalin is too lazy to type the entire word. Perhaps if someone else somewhere typed the whole word she would be able to copy and paste it.

  17. Runanide  •  Mar 29, 2012 @8:45 am

    @Ken: Yeah, but she's obviously an idiot and she said sorry and kissed your butt. It comes off like picking on the weak kid on the playground. And anyway, our entire profession has a few things to learn about plagiarism.

  18. Ken  •  Mar 29, 2012 @8:49 am

    @Runanide: Except that it was a lulling apology, not a general apology, it was dishonest, and the facts show that she was engaged in serial plagiarism.

  19. EH  •  Mar 29, 2012 @11:44 am

    And we see that the site is now suddenly down for "scheduled maintenance!"

    "DUDE WE SCHEDULED THIS LIKE HOURS AGO"

  20. Dan h  •  Mar 29, 2012 @1:29 pm

    I first realized this when a son of mine wrote a paper for school. Some of it seemed like it was truly NOT his writing. So a quick google of a specific sentence and — busted. The internet truly works both ways.

  21. John David Galt  •  Mar 29, 2012 @9:16 pm

    You've only just scratched the surface of plagiarism controversies; indeed, I'd be surprised if you haven't made it a keyword/category by this time next year.

    Several of my college profs use specialized software or web sites designed to catch plagiarism in students' written assignments. They don't tell students any more than that, which means it is quite possible for original work to fall foul of the test, with no feedback as to why, and no opportunity for the student to run his work through the testing program for himself before submitting it. For sheer lack of due process, this rivals the no-fly list.

    This is not intended to denigrate or trivialize the accusation of plagiarism that started this thread. Plagiarism is wrong and those responsible deserve whatever public embarrassment they get (though I'm not at all sure it justifies a law, at least if there aren't any measurable damages). But no one should stand to lose his career, or even a college education, without pretty good proof.

  22. Tracey  •  Mar 30, 2012 @10:42 am

    There's another instance of blog plagiarism reported this month. Well trafficked blog Amalah.com seems to have been literally ripped off by Kristin Ruiz of OurOrdinaryLife.com, going so far as to juts change the sex of the kids and ripping off entire pregnancy experiences. Her claims of innocent happening seem to be wrapped around "I'm a young 27, inexperienced…" What she left out is stupid.

  23. John Beaty  •  Mar 31, 2012 @8:34 am

    JDG,

    Wait, are you saying that not knowing HOW plagiarism will be found is inappropriate? THat's kind of like saying that police should release details of how they conduct investigations so that criminals can verify that they don't accidentally get arrested.
    I think anyone who plagiarizes knows what they're doing. As do you.

  24. AlphaCentauri  •  Mar 31, 2012 @5:46 pm

    If you're going to plagiarize, it's smarter to block archive.org from crawling your site.

  25. Antaeus Feldspar  •  Apr 3, 2012 @3:22 pm

    John Beaty, I think you're missing JDG's point. Say the professors are using the anti-plagiarism software DetectAPlage. Well, if DetectAPlage is perfect software, then it will have no false positives and as few false negatives as can be arranged by giving the software a wide base of texts to compare against. And if the software is perfect, then no student has anything to worry about.

    But who says the software is perfect? Who says that the professor read all the directions for using the software perfectly? In other words, what happens when the software says "this is plagiarized" and it's a false positive? Do we tell the student "no, not possible, the software must be perfect and therefore you must be a plagiarist because the software says you are"? Suppose the fault is actually the professor's, because the professor didn't read the instructions that say "if the student quotes appropriately from a cited source, mark the quotation so that the software doesn't think it's uncited plagiarism". What do you tell the student? Do you tell him, "Well, it's more important that we can catch real plagiarists than that you should be cleared of a false accusation of plagiarism, so you don't get to find out why the software thought you were plagiarizing"?

    As someone who was once accused of plagiarism simply because I did too well with a paper that I slacked off on until the last minute and then pulled together in a caffeine-and-ELO-fueled all-nighter, I think it's a bad idea to say "the process by which students are accused of a wrongdoing that could severely damage them academically should remain secret."