Canada’s favourite columnist has been caught again. That’s right “Margaret Wente is an Unrepentant Plagiarist 2” is now available on a blog, podcast, or newspaper near you. On Twitter many people (myself included) expressed shock that the Globe and Mail still employed Ms. Wente after her most recent misstep. In the National Post, Terence Corcoran dismissed the whole situation as nothing more than “a matter of technique and perhaps sloppiness” on Wente’s part.As my exposure to the story has grown, I have come down somewhere in the middle. The misdeeds Wente is being accused of do seem rather small. Margaret Wente reproduced a sentence verbatim from Jesse Ausubel’s article, “The return of nature” and also seems to have borrowed a bear anecdote. She also borrows from Maya Montenegro’s article found here (http://ensia.com/voices/crispr-is-coming-to-agriculture-with-big-implications-for-food-farmers-consumers-and-nature/). I am not a scholar of journalism, so I do not know how far Ms. Wente has strayed from what is the accepted norm in opinion pieces, but that is not what worries me. Two things seem puzzling about Wente’s plagiarism: 1) How do the editors at the Globe and Mail miss what Carol Wainio is able to pick up so easily and; 2) The reputation of Canada’s only respectable newspaper being taken down by its resident contrarian (gregarious of me I know).
Carol Wainio has done a meticulous job of dissecting Ms. Wente’s work and she was able to find unattributed sentences and phrases in her work even though she had “stopped reading her quite a while ago”(http://mediaculpapost.blogspot.ca). I was left wondering if Jefferey Simpson, Konrad Yakabuski, and Gary Mason receive the same level of analysis? Secondly, I wondered how Ms. Wainio knows so much. I know she works at a university and is a professor, but she seems to have instant recall.
I consider myself a reasonably well-read and informed person, but when I read Wente’s columns I am not able to find these examples of plagiarism. Her columns usually just piss me off a little, make me shake me head, or very rarely, begrudgingly accept her point. Yet, Ms. Wainio knows that a sentence, an anecdote, or a phrase is identical to one published in a lengthy article in the spring of 2015 edition of a nature journal. Does she have such amazing recall that she read the rather lengthy and complicated article by Mr. Ausubel and was then able to find the plagiarism a year later? Or is Ms. Waino a better editor than those in charge of Ms. Wente’s work?
When I flush out how Ms.Wainio was able to recognize the plagiary it does seem like unintentional sloppiness on Ms. Wente’s part (except for the bear anecdote that seems like copying an idea) and this seems like something her editors should have caught. Ms. Wainio probably just clicked on the link Wente provided and noticed the similarities (so much for her mental superpowers). What is strange is that Ms. Wente provides the link in her article in the first place: she is not trying to hide anything. This makes me think a competent editor should have caught this before the article was published.
I would assume (again I am a part-time blogger and not a journalist) an editor at the Globe and Mail would read the article Ms. Wente links to. The problem, I believe, is not that Ms. Wente is a purposeful and unrepentant plagiarist, the problem is the sheer volume of work she produces for the Globe and Mail. And this leads me to my second concern: how to redeem the reputation of Canada’s paper of record.
Margaret Wente’s columns appear in three of the six editions of the Globe and Mail’s weekly run. On this week’s Canadaland Shortcuts Jesse Brown and Jen Gerson (http://canadalandshow.com/podcast/short-cuts-68-wenteduffyghomeshi-fatigue) talk about the sheer level of original thought and research skill it would take for one person to produce so many columns each week. Perhaps, Ms. Wente once possessed this skill and level of original thought, but judging by her numerous plagiarism violations in recent years, it is clear that she no longer does.
Instead of resigning wouldn’t it be better if Ms. Wente just scaled back her work a little bit? Say one column per week. That would give her time to develop original ideas and it would allow her editors to carefully assess her pieces. If they find a sentence plagiarized from a source they can put quotation marks around it. If they notice she is borrowing ideas about bears or making up archetypes and passing them off as real people, they can offer some remedial advice.
This solution would not make everybody happy, there are some who probably view the cutting of all ties with Ms. Wente as the only way out for the Globe and Mail. Others, like Corcoran, would probably view any retribution as mob justice. Yet, if one wants the reputation of Canada’s paper of record to improve some definitive action should be taken. If not, part 3 of this saga should be released in a few years.