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American Journalism Review
Plagiarism Detection Tools  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2004

Plagiarism Detection Tools   

By Judson Berger
Judson Berger is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


On February 26, the Hartford Courant ran a column by Richard Judd, president of Central Connecticut State University, about the conflict in Cyprus between its Greek and Turkish residents. But a reader accused Judd of copying material from other sources, and Judd soon came under fire.

The president contended he never intended to plagiarize, that he mistook fragments from his notes as his own words. The university reported, however, that Judd had lifted material from the New York Times, London's Independent and a Cyprus government Web site.

Judd is stepping down in July. The Courant's editorial page editor, John Zakarian, apologized to the paper's readers. And, in early April, the Courant signed up for the same plagiarism detection software, iThenticate, the paper used to affirm Judd's misdeeds. The Courant became the first newspaper to embrace the service, one of a few tools that are drawing attention from jittery news executives in the wake of the Jack Kelley/Jayson Blair imbroglios.

Since the scandals, iThenticate has sent offers to 200 newspapers. It says it has added a number of them to its roster of clients; the papers wish to remain unidentified. Rates vary, but most newspapers can expect to pay a flat fee of $1,000 and an additional $5 to $10 for every 500 words submitted for scrutiny.

"It's worth the cost," says Courant Commentary Editor Carolyn Lumsden. "It doesn't catch absolutely everything, but it catches enough that you're alerted if there's a problem."

The program scours gargantuan databases of academic papers, Web pages and published work and in seconds produces a color-coded list of possible plagiarism instances (and a side-by-side view of the similar documents). In the Courant episode, it found that 11 percent of the challenged commentary was unoriginal. Lumsden says it caught nearly everything.

The Courant is using the software on many of its op-eds to guard against shortcuts by contributors who may not know the guidelines for attribution, but not in other sections of the paper. "I think I wouldn't waste my time on any staff-written piece here, because people here know not to do that... But for people on the outside who don't know the rules, that would just be a precaution that wouldn't hurt," says Lumsden, adding that the program has caught some minor infractions.

John Barrie, founder and CEO of Oakland, California-based iParadigms, which developed iThenticate, hopes his product will become as routine as spell check. The Web-based program is an offshoot of the company's Turnitin.com technology, which 2,500 colleges and high schools across the country use to keep students in check.

Barrie says the process could help newspapers bulletproof their integrity. "It is impossible, 100 percent impossible," says Barrie, "for a human being to determine the originality of anything. That's why the New York Times has set itself up for another case of Jayson Blair."

Another plagiarism-detection service, MyDropBox, which launched last fall, says it too has newspaper and magazine clients. But like iThenticate, it's keeping mum about who they are.

"Plagiarism is not very frequent in newspapers," says Max Lytvyn, co-owner of the company. But, he adds, it is "not good publicity..so they prefer to spend some extra time checking."

Publications pay a flat annual fee of between $5,000 and $15,000 for MyDropBox, which sizes up material against the Internet and databases. Turn-around for this thorough vetting is 12 to 24 hours.

For drive-by plagiarism detection, editors can turn to WCopyfind, a free downloadable program.

Fiddling with iThenticate's self-explanatory interface, AJR plugged in one of Jayson Blair's now-infamous Jessica Lynch stories, "Freed soldier is in better condition than first thought, father says," as a test. The system concluded 22 percent of the article was unoriginal. It cited three Internet sites, but it didn't point to the specific source--the Associated Press--from which Blair is alleged to have plagiarized. And as for Jack Kelley's "At Pakistan bazaar, 'Darra thunder' Arms sold in 'toughest little town,'" which is quite similar to a piece that had previously run in the Washington Post, iThenticate reported the piece was clean.

Admittedly, Barrie says, the databases have some holes--but he hopes the threat of being caught will deter journalists from taking shortcuts to success.


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