Splayed across roughly over half of the opinion page in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen is a 1,514-word article in which veteran journalist Robert Sibley admits to several instances where he used the words of others without proper attribution. The piece is thoroughly apologetic and itemizes each instance. It follows on the heels of the firing of Elizabeth Nickson from the National Post over a similar offense. Sibley, who was on the paper’s Editorial Board, has now been "reassigned" within the Citizen.
The article begins, "After 25 years in journalism as a reporter, editor, feature writer,
essayist, columnist and editorial writer, it is with deep regret that I
inform colleagues and readers of mistakes of attribution in some of my
This apology and correction is rare primarily because it is written by the offender and not by the editors of the paper. It is also rare in that a repeat offender was not fired.
This article, while sincere, unquestionably apologetic, and heartbreaking to read, does fall short in one critical area: it does not tell us how the errors were discovered and how the paper is certain there were no other instances. As far as the reader knows, Sibley just spontaneously decided to fess up. Did the paper install anti-plagiarism software? Did a reader — or one of the people Sibley failed to credit — complain?
In situations such as this, it is better to over-explain. Readers who feel they have not had all their questions answered will likely assume that the paper is trying to cover something up. Sibley’s apology should have been accompanied by a note from the editors explaining how the errors were discovered and what has been done to improve their anti-plagiarism measures.
Back to the errors…The article lists eight times Sibley did not properly attribute the work of others. His explanation was this:
Firstly, I lost control of my material. Whether I write an editorial or a large series, I do as much background research and information gathering as time allows and necessity dictates. The more complex the article or story, the more research. The risk in this effort is being inundated with too much information, some of which is easily recalled, some of which isn’t and some of which becomes part of me in the sense that, like anyone else, I absorb some of what I learn. For example, I don’t recall reading Anderson’s "Pilgrimage to the Stars" article, although it is obvious I must have. I presume (in hindsight) that her sentence got lost in the large amount of historical material I gathered in preparing to write my 50,000-word series. I was careless.
Secondly, in the references to Scruton, Zakaria, Feldman and Nagel, I didn’t sufficiently distinguish my primary and secondary sources. For instance, Nagel offers a summary of Descartes’ thought that is familiar to me. I surmise (again, in hindsight) that I incorporated his words in my initial draft and then did not think to question something I "knew" when I did the final draft sometime later.
Read the specific errors and other parts of the article by following the link below, as the article is not available on the Citizen’s website.
In an Aug. 22, 2004 column, "Nothing Stands Still: Advance reading offsets romantic images of Japan," I referred to Nakahama Manjiro, a Japanese fisherman rescued after a shipwreck in 1841, writing that "He was picked up by an American whaling boat, given the name ‘John Man,’ and taken to the United States." That sentence came from a previously published article by Stephen Rowe in the Japanese online magazine Metropolis.
In an editorial, "Hating the U.S.," published March 18, 2004, I wrote: "America is unloved in the alleys of Amman, despised in the cafes of Paris and sneered at in the souks of Istanbul." The sentence was inspired by Fouad Ajami’s July 3, 2003 article "The anti-Americans" in The Wall Street Journal in which he wrote: "America is unloved in the alleyways of Nablus and Karachi, and in the cafes of Paris." I thought it reasonable to "improve" on Ajami’s image for my own purposes, but it is arguable that I should have credited him with the idea.
On Jan. 6, 2004, my column about a NASA Mars mission, "That’s the Spirit," contained the phrase "a golf-cart sized dinner tray on wheels" to describe the Martian geological explorer. That phrase, with only a slight variation, appeared in a Jan. 5 article by Mark Sappenfield in The Christian Science Monitor.
In an essay entitled "For Freedom of others," published on Sept. 7, 2003, I discussed two books — Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, and Noah Feldman’s After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. I wrote: "The Iranian parliament — elected more freely than most in the Middle East — imposes harsh restrictions on speech and even dress." In a 1997 essay, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," published in Foreign Affairs, Zakaria wrote: "The Iranian parliament — elected more freely than most in the Middle East — imposes harsh restrictions on speech, assembly, and even dress, diminishing that country’s already meager supply of liberty." Similarly, in summarizing Feldman’s book, I wrote: "Indeed, according Feldman, a law professor with a doctorate in Islamic Thought, mainstream Islamists don’t want jihad, they want democracy." While the phrase "mainstream Islamists don’t want jihad, they want democracy" reflects Feldman’s views, I should have attributed the phrase to Martin Kramer, who discussed Feldman’s book on his weblog.
In an editorial entitled "Free to help and to preach," published on May 27, 2003, I cited the English political theorist Roger Scruton’s book The West and the Rest to explain the concept of the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, I wrote a sentence that while intended to convey Scruton’s thought was almost identical to one written by political scientist Paul Meilaender in a review of Scruton’s book that appeared in the March 2003 edition of First Things. Mr. Meilaender wrote: "… Scruton claims that the defining achievement of the West has been to resolve the ‘contest between religion and politics’ by conceiving of the state as an independent source of human authority, deriving its legitimacy not from divine commands, but from the will of the citizens whom it represents." I dropped the phrase "Scruton claims," assuming that since I subsequently quoted Scruton within the paragraph in which the sentence occurs, my attribution would be clear.
In a Feb. 2, 2003 column, "The dangers of space can’t stop the explorer," I cited Albert Harrison’s book Spacefaring: The Human Dimension, but also used a sentence that varies only slightly from Amazon.com’s description of Harrison’s book. I wrote, "Indeed, the stars have always called us, but only in the past four decades have we been able to respond." The Amazon.com "product description" reads: "The stars have always called us, but only for the past forty years or so have we been able to respond by travelling in space."
On Dec. 29, 2002, in a column on philosophers’ biographies entitled "Looking at the lives behind the earth-shaking thoughts," I incorporated material from Thomas Nagel’s review of Rudiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, which ran in The New Republic on Jan. 24, 2002. Nagel referred to Rene Descartes as having "believed that by doubting everything he had learned in an ordinary way he would find within himself an unassailable form of thought that would allow him to reconstruct his knowledge of both himself and the world on a secure foundation." I used most of that sentence in a paragraph summarizing Richard Watson’s biography, Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of Rene Descartes.
Finally, on Nov. 12, 2000, I included a 23-word sentence in the second part of my nine-part series on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage that should have been attributed to an article entitled "Pilgrimage to the Stars" by Mary Jo Anderson that appeared in the February 2000 edition of the Catholic magazine, Crisis. Her sentence reads: "As the pilgrims streamed across Europe, converging on the ‘Road of Stars,’ they exchanged ideas about architecture, fashion, ballads, politics, food and philosophy." I wrote: "As the pilgrims trekked across Europe, converging on the Road of Stars, they exchanged ideas about architecture, fashion, science, politics, food and philosophy."
More from sibley on the errors:
In journalism, it is not always necessary to attribute well-known or widely available historical material, generic descriptions or statements of fact. It is also generally permitted to use ideas that fall under the categories of "fair use" and "public domain." As Richard Posner, an American jurist and a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote in a Newsday article on May 18, 2003: "Another phrase for copying an idea, as distinct from the form in which it is expressed, is dissemination of ideas. If one needs a license to repeat another person’s idea, or if one risks ostracism by one’s professional community for failing to credit an idea to its originator, who may be forgotten or unknown, the dissemination of ideas is impeded."
…That said, I am responsible for what I did. My errors may have been, in part at least, the consequence of gathering or trying to impart too much information; to be sure, I like to think my essays, columns and editorials bring to the reader’s attention ideas that can help them better understand the world. Nevertheless, while I was not intentionally trying to appropriate the words or ideas of others as my own, I must acknowledge my failures in attribution. And it is for this that I wholeheartedly apologize — to the authors whose words I used, to my colleagues and, most particularly, to Citizen readers, who have every right to expect better of me.