Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More confusion on plagiarism: The case of Johann Hari

If you were to read the right-wing papers in the UK you'd think Johann Hari (a high-profile left-wing columnist at the Independent newspaper who has also published for Slate and other outlets) had committed a terrible terrible crime. Not unexpectedly his enemies, of which there are surprisingly many, want to see his head (well, they want to see him fired). The plagiarism charge is currently being leveled against Hari all over the place.

What makes this an interesting case is the nature of his transgression. Hari admitted essentially to using content as part of interviews that was not part of the actual interview in question. Say, he interviewed Hugo Chavez. Hari would include in the interview quotes from sources other than what was said during the interview (but the quotes were nonetheless verbatim quote from the person he interviewed, it's just that the stuff wasn't actually said during the interview but was published elsewhere by someone else).

What is interesting here is that by standard definitions of plagiarism he has not actually plagiarised anything. After all, he didn't pass someone else's content off as his own. The people he quoted during the interview really said the things he quoted, but they did not say it during he interview. It would have been correct and arguably required to give the other interviewer credit (ie the person who got the quote he eventually quoted as if it had been said during his own interview).

What Hari did is no doubt a bit dodgy, but does it really constitute plagiarism? Clearly not, because the intellectual content was corrected ascribed to whoever was quoted. However, he should have given credit to the person who managed to get the quote in question from the subject of the interview.

Did Hari commit a capital crime here? I don't think so. One understands the campaign run by the right-wing media against an unloved left-wing commentator and competitor, but to my mind it's time to move on. Hari admitted his errors, promised to change his ways. That should be the end of it. Plagiarism  he did clearly not commit.


  1. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011

    Udo - First a minor point: You say the quotes were verbatim. From the sources you linked to, the quotes were often or always not quite verbatim, but almost verbatim or almost identical. Make of that what you will, but I think I can't see the justification for not taking the precise and exact words rather than putting words never said (not even in another interview). But a minor point, just adds to the dodginess.

    -Tim W.

  2. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011

    Second, there is the question of whether he should lose his job v. the question of whether particular prizes he was awarded should be investigated and possibly revoked. On the former, I see how you can say: it is not a capital crime, move on. But prizes are another matter, because one is removing recognition, rather than giving a capital crime.

    -Tim W.

  3. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011

    Third, I appreciate that you want to stop the right-wingers from exaggerating what was done. However, this statement is untrue and undermines clearheaded analysis of what was done and the issues involved here.

    "What Hari did is no doubt a bit dodgy, but does it really constitute plagiarism? Clearly not, because the intellectual content was corrected ascribed to whoever was quoted."

    Interviewing is work, and getting an interview and getting certain responses from a subject is something that is part of what a journalist does. So you do take away credit from the journalist who interviewed the person by pretending or implying it was your work.

    -Tim W.

  4. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011

    To follow up on the last comment. Having been a former journalist, whenever I quoted another interview, I would have to say the source. I knew it would have been dishonest for me to include a quote from a subject and act like it was mine.

    Newspapers like Roll Call constantly are having larger papers and magazines take a story that they first broke and not giving them credit for the story. That is one problem, and is quite frequent in journalism. However, it would be unacceptable in American journalism (at least where I was) to steal quotes. And it is stealing quotes from other interviews.

  5. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011


    Many students (including myself in high school) have assignments where they have to interview other people. Would it be plagiarism (or a similar violation of the school's honor code) to include quotes from another interview? I hope that school would say yes, or consider it worth bringing it before a committee. I hope you would likewise would pursue that student.

    Further, consider a student who accurately quotes John locke in his paper. However, his selection of quotes comes from another article. That's plagiarism or something just as serious. I hope you agree.

    Whatever you think about the journalism case, and the politics about it, don't downplay some of the ethical issues involved with what I now think is an unjustified distinction about how it can't be plagiarism.



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