|Death of a Plagiarist: A word thief burns as his editors deny all responsibility
|by Chris Parry
Last week, we revealed to the world how a University of Missouri, Kansas City student had stolen large pieces of text from over 58 of our movie reviews, and passed them off as his own in that school’s University News newspaper. To say the revelations caused a bit of a flap is an understatement. TV stations, magazines, websites and newspapers both national (USA Today, Hollywood Reporter) and regional have run with the story, in which the plagiarist in question, Samir Patel, is quoted as calling it all “a bit of a misunderstanding.” He’s right on that front. Clearly he misunderstood that it’s wrong to steal other peoples’ work and reprint it as your own, without permission, credit or compensation. But while Patel is finding out exactly what karma feels like, the people who should have spotted his transgressions, his editors at the University News, are wiping their hands of the whole sorry episode, refusing to apologize, take any blame, or even reply to our correspondence. And as regular readers of this site will know full well, such behavior cannot be allowed to stand unanswered.
To recap: Samir Patel was writing movie reviews for the University News. He wrote lots of them, and he did sports writing too, and the occasional witty urbanite column. He was the paper's readers' representative, and a lecturer at the school's English Department. In fact, it's safe to say Mr Patel was a rising star among the UMKC lit-heads... only, he had a secret. A very bad, very public, very easy to spot if you bother looking kind of secret that eventually spelled the end of his academic career. Samir Patel was a plagiarist. And a really, really bad one at that.
We found this out by taking one of our reviews and running it through one of the many online plagiarism checkers that you can find with a simple Google search. It took two seconds. And when we found one instance of plagiarism, it took about twenty seconds more to find several others. By the end of the day, we'd learned Patel had stolen from 15 of our writers, and a handful of writers from other websites. And he'd done so in the most sloppy way imaginable - by taking whole paragraphs from multiple reviews, and slapping them together as his own work.
But what's really astonishing is not that a plagiarist was emplued at the University News, and that his crimes were so plentiful. What's inexcusable is that his editors at the University News had NO IDEA what was happening.
Which is odd, because the UNews, and the College of Arts and Sciences that oversee it, have not exactly been covered in glory when it comes to journalistic ethics of late. First there was the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Bryan LeBeau, who was forced to resign his position (though not his employment with the school) after a plagiarism scandal in which he admitted to using Cornell West’s words in a speech without proper attribution.
Then there was the incident where an article was written naming a UMKC student as a member of a radical group on campus. When it was discovered (as the paper went to press) that he actually WASN'T a member of such a group, rather than stop the presses and waste a few thousand issues avoiding slandering a fellow student, the UNews editors decided to print the lie anyway, with an insert in the middle pages admitting that the story was wrong.
Somewhat ironically, it was Samir Patel that wrote the apology column after that debacle. One wonders where he found the words...
Patel’s long, meandering, barely comprehensible writing in this instance gives you an insight into why he might have spent so much of his journalism career stealing the work of others; “We are still a student newspaper, subject to our own fiscal limitations. Thus, we decided to immediately provide an extremely necessary insert, so as to clear the innocent party named in the article.”
No, Mr Patel. What would have cleared that innocent man’s name would be scrapping the issue entirely, not publishing lies about him in blazing headlines, alongside a flyer saying “Whoops!”
Samir Patel was actually given the job of Readers’ Representative at the UNews after a previous scandal, in what the editors of the paper said was a means of cleaning up their act and getting better faculty oversight over the paper's operations after being found printing incorrect material. A competing student paper, the better written, open and honest Kansas City Aurora, was actually denied student funding because the established UNews had promised that they were now running a clean ship. And Samir Patel would be making sure of it.
Now, of course, we know that Mr Patel was only making sure he got his byline in as many spots as possible, even if it meant stealing the work of others. That's not a first - Stephen Glass, the plagiarist made famous by the recent feature film Shattered Glass, was a fact-checker for The New Republic when he began writing articles that contained (or were) total fabrications, and he too kept it up for over a year before anyone asked questions. After all, if you can't trust the fact-checker, who can you trust?
Glass has been quoted as saying he did it for the "adulation". We don't know why Samir Patel did it, though we do know he won't be doing it again. He's resigned from the paper, he's got no chance of continuing teaching, and in an email he wrote to us, he stated that the school was planning further action - presumably expulsion, perhaps even a review of his existing undergrad degree.
But the people who facilitated Samir Patel's crimes will get off scot-free - or so they think.
We’d contacted the school with three simple demands:
1) A front page apology.
2) The full list of writers stolen from and the movie reviews that contained plagiarism on the same front page.
3) Payment, to the tune of $25 for each review pilfered.
To date we’re still waiting for any of those three demands to be met. In fact, at the time of writing, we’re still waiting on any direct contact from the University Paper, the English Department, the College of Arts and Sciences, or the University itself. Instead, all we have seen of the entire incident from the UNews was the following:
MESSAGE TO READERS
A University News movie reviewer, columnist, and readers' representative plagiarized movie reviews, and has resigned. Samir Patel left the newspaper April 5.
"While I do feel there may have been somewhat of a misunderstanding, I apologize to the readers and am resigning due to my actions," Patel said in an e-mail. "I truly didn't mean to hurt anyone, and least of all this paper."
Patel did not explain what he meant by a misunderstanding. But the newspaper has verified 85 instances where Patel used sentences or paragraphs without giving proper credit to the originators.
Now, where shall we begin on how this response is inadequate… Okay, let’s try them in order.
1. “A Message To Readers”? How about this as a more accurate headline: “READERS’ REPRESENTATIVE IS SERIAL PLAGIARIST, EDITORS FAIL TO SPOT BLATANT ABUSES”
2. It’s nice that Patel apologized to the readers, who must feel very poorly to have read movie reviews of Fever Pitch that were in fact written by someone else, and Patel earns points for actually contacting us with an apology. But where's the public statement? Where's the explanation?
3. The UNews took one single sentence from a Patel email as his sole quote in their entire piece? Where’s the follow up? “Somewhat of a misunderstanding?” What does that even mean? Where’s the explanation? “Patel did not explain what he meant,” says the article, but what it should really say is “We refuse to tell you what he meant, because this is really embarrassing for us and we’re hoping it will go away if we put a small paragraph on page one and sack the guy quietly.”
4. And talking of explanations, where is the explanation from the newspaper itself as to how a mainstay writer (and they don’t have too many) could go over a year stealing work from other people without anyone actually checking its authenticity? When you read Patel's writing, it varies wildly from 'barely comprehensible' (the stuff he wrote from scratch) to 'professional standard' (the stuff he stole), so how did nobody detect that variation?
The University News removed Patel’s questionable reviews from its website after receiving our legal letter demanding they do so, but for some unfathomable reason they didn’t take down all his work. In a move startling in its inadequacy, they deleted only some of the disputed pieces, leaving the rest of Patel’s writing on the site for all to see. Which is good, because it allowed us to do what the University News seemingly refuses to do – check the rest of his work.
And lo and behold, we found more stolen material.
This article, titled Queer Theory, in which Patel quotes his Brokeback Mountain review, features more stolen work. You see, the passage he quoted was not actually his own words, but the writing of our own Paul Bryant.
Here’s another piece of stolen work, this one cribbed from KnotMag, a website that no longer publishes, but lives on in suspended animation online.
Then there’s this column, titled The Man Date, in which he steals from none other than the New York Times.
What’s interesting about the latter piece of thievery is that, if you Google a sentence from it, let’s say “Attending the movie "Friday Night Lights" is a man date”, you find not only the original column in the Times, but several other columns that have referenced it in other outlets, such as the Daily Princetonian and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In fact, looking deeper you’ll find THREE PAGES of Google results on that phrase, from syndicated columns to blogs, all properly crediting the writer and falling within the rules of journalism, so how could it be that nobody at the University News bothered to do the same? Does nobody at the UNews also read the New York Times? Are there no readers of the UNews that also read the Times? How could this theft go undiscovered for so long? Was it sheer incompetence, laziness, ignorance – all three?
Our vote is for the latter, being as the article in question is STILL online at the UNews (unbelievable!).
Here’s a challenge: Go to this Samir Patel article, pick any sentence, and then Google it. See what you find. When you’re done, try this one. Every time you find another stolen sentence, take a drink. You’ll be sloshed by the second paragraph.
One must ask the question, if Patel has stolen this much work that has been put in the public domain, what sort of liberties has he taken in his academic work? Will the College of Arts and Sciences go through Patel’s old papers and essays to ascertain whether or not his grad study has been marked by academic theft? Will they go back through his undergrad work to be sure he didn’t get his degree on the back of other, wiser, more talented people than himself?
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the University News won't tell us. Because, in their words, they think they have 'addressed the situation'.
On the UNews reader forum, there’s an extended explanation of the Patel situation that contains scant information, no apology to our writers, and such unmitigated drivel as the following:
The University News position is strong on this matter. What Patel did was wrong and unjustifiable, and the University News has addressed the situation.
Let it be known, University News, that you have NOT addressed the situation. We have, and we will continue to address it until we receive what we have demanded from the University News. We are by NO MEANS satisfied with your single paragraph non-apology, and we stand by our earlier demand for financial restitution for our writers, a front page apology, and a front page credit to the writers, both those on this site and elsewhere, who have been wronged over an extended period by this unmitigated literary thief and your non-existant ethical and professional standards.
The scourge of plagiarism is one that is a constant threat to all editors and journalists, and we know that at this site full well. We too have had experience in the past with a staff writer who had stolen work from others, but when we discovered it, we removed every piece of writing he’d ever written for us, barred him from the site, splashed the details in a front page article, apologized to the person stolen from, and have refused contact with the offending writer since.
The UNews, on the other hand, has opted to remove only that material it knows to be stolen, not bothered checking any other material from the same writer, neglected to make any contact, either spoken or written, refused to apologize, and considers that they have ‘addressed the situation’ by accepting the plagiarist’s resignation and publishing a single sentence from an email he sent them.
As far as apologies go, the University News has, to date, refused to offer one to the readers, the writers that were stolen from, or indeed the world of journalism that its editors so badly let down. The closest they’ve come to an actual apology is the following piece of fence-straddling:
The University News considers the plagiarism Patel's responsibility. The newspaper was let down, along with its readers. Even so, the University News regrets the distress this has caused not only to those whose material was used without proper credit, but also to the newspaper's readers.
The newspaper ‘regrets the distress’? NOT GOOD ENOUGH. The words you’re looking for are “We apologize unreservedly for not checking Patel’s work, for not removing all of his work upon being told of his crime, and for allowing this brazen theft to go on, under our noses, for so long.”
Stephen Glass' boss at the New Republic never tried to absolve himself of blame for his employee's actions. He told CBS, "It was really the magazine's responsibility to ensure that the stuff went in was good journalism. And it totally failed in that respect." So too did the University News, and as I write this article, it continues to fail. In fact, by keeping stolen material online and not even bothering to check it while this controversy has raged from coast to coast in the press, the University News has taken failure to the level of a martial art.
The writers and editors of eFilmCritic.com and HollywoodBitchslap.com consider this issue to be far from over, and we consider the editors and publishers of the University News to be as much to blame for Patel’s literary crimes as the plagiarist himself. If the current editorial staff at the University News cannot find the time, energy, or reason to check the work submitted to them before it is published, they should resign from their positions immediately. If the College of Arts and Sciences (which currently still has no full time Dean, according to reports) will not expel Patel from their Graduate program, the department and those running it should be censured and/or fired.
And as far as the former Dean of the college, the one who set the gold standard as a role model to his students by bringing plagiarism to the school in the first place, in this instance we leave it to the Kansas City Aurora, the paper that was refused student funding after the UNews promised to clean up its act, to have the final word on him:
The inaction by UMKC in the case of LeBeau is nothing short of appalling. Not only has the man who allegedly attempted to pass off the words of Cornell West as his own kept a job at UMKC that pays him at least $128,496 per year, he is now responsible for recommending the oversight structure for undergraduate students to Interim Provost Bruce Bubacz.
How this was allowed to happen is beyond me. If there is one cardinal sin in academic institutions, it is you do not attempt to pass off someone's work as your own. Yet, not only did LeBeau do this, no one is quite sure exactly what his responsibilities are for his $128,496 beyond his leadership of the "Let's find a way to add another administrator to UMKC's bloated bureaucracy" group.
Executive Editor, eFilmCritic.com and HollywoodBitchslap.com
Co-signed, the victims of University News incompetence:
Eric D. Snider
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1797
originally posted: 04/21/06 05:21:07
last updated: 05/09/06 01:44:38