Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“That was a really bad Friday for us:” WIRED warns four stories were plagiarized

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501px-Wired_logo.svgLast Friday, WIRED editor Adam Rogers got a direct message on Twitter that no journalist wants to see. Christina Larson, a freelance writer in China, told him she had seen overlap with her own work in a few WIRED stories, and included links to the relevant pieces.

“She was gracious, just asking for a link back in the future, said she loved WIRED,” Rogers told Retraction Watch by phone this afternoon. It was early morning in San Francisco, so Rogers thanked her for bringing the issue to his attention, and said he’d look at it more closely when he arrived at his desk some 45 minutes later.

It was the start of an episode that would lead to the dismissal of a WIRED reporter, and the addition of warning notes to four of the publication’s stories.

When Rogers got to the WIRED office, he printed out the stories, and some other material Larson had sent. Going through them with a highlighter, he saw enough of concern that he went to the magazine’s research editor, Joanna Pearlstein, who also took a look.

They found a lot of problems in the four stories that Nic Cavell, a reporting fellow who had started at WIRED in January for a six-month stint, had published online. WIRED has four such fellows at a time, and the program, which pays participants, has been a big success, Rogers said.

Cavell — whose LinkedIn profile lists him as a Crime Reporter at the Riverdale Press (see this update), and a fact-checker for Smithsonian Magazine; his website says he graduated from Brown University in 2014 — hadn’t published anything in print yet, although he had a greenlight for one story. (We’ve tried to contact Cavell, but have not heard back.)

Joanna went through his first drafts and found a lot of examples, some of which were innocuous or the kind of thing that any beginner would do, that had an editor found them, would have involved a serious conversation, but would not have been fireable offenses. But there were also examples of using the same language.

Here’s what we found on a quick check: Cavell appears to have lifted some material from this story on genetically modified crops in China from Larson’s New Yorker story on a similar topic. Here is the beginning of the WIRED piece, dated February 18, the day before the issues came to light:

China has a fifth of the world’s people, but only about 7 percent of its arable land. Food security is a national obsession…

And the New Yorker article, dated August 31:

In China, which has one-fifth of the world’s population but just seven per cent of the world’s arable land, food security is a national obsession.

By early afternoon, Rogers and Pearlstein pulled the senior editorial management of WIRED.com and the print magazine into the conversation. And by the end of the day, they had dismissed Cavell, and put up notices of concern on four stories, “China Hates GMOs. Problem Is, China Really Needs GMOs;” “Blame an Ivory Ban for China’s Vanishing Giant Clams;” “The UK Just Green-Lit Crispr Gene Editing in Human Embryos;” and “Gerrymandering Is Even More Infuriating When You Can Actually See It:”

This story does not meet WIRED’s journalistic standards as it reproduces material published elsewhere. We’ve chosen to keep the story online for archival purposes and the public record.

Rogers told Retraction Watch they considered various options before choosing that one:

We had a few ideas. One was to leave a headline and the link but delete the story, and put some statement on the page. We floated the idea of just pulling them down. We came back around to leaving them up, in the interests of being transparent, which we all agreed is critical to preserving the editorial integrity of the process. We had identified its extent, it had gone no further, we were confident of that.

As Rogers said:

You can’t delete stuff from the Internet, that’s not being transparent, that’s a coverup. We wanted to make it clear we solved the problem within the bounds of what journalists are supposed to do when this happens. Transparency is part of our mandate.

WIRED has dealt with a similar issue in the past: A few years ago, it handled a famous case of a plagiarist, science writer Jonah Lehrer. The magazine decided to cut ties with him following an investigation, as Poynter reported in 2012:

[NYU journalism professor Charles] Seife reviewed 18 posts and found 14 instances in which Lehrer recycled his own work, five posts that included material directly from press releases, three posts that plagiarized from other writers, four posts with problematic quotations and four that had problematic facts.

We asked Rogers if there would be any changes as a result of this new episode:

This probably would not have happened in the print magazine, because I believe that our fact-check desk would have caught it, and I don’t know what we would have done if they had, because it wouldn’t have run. On the web, we rely on reporters themselves to do the fact-checking.

He noted: “What you don’t want to do is punish other entry-level journalists for the actions of one bad actor.”

What I want is to teach them to how to write science journalism for the web, and for print, and just do good journalism no matter where it appears.

Rogers added:

We need to make sure that everyone here, no matter what their level of experience, understands that they can ask for help, that they can talk to people about how to proceed with a story. I think that the writer who did this felt like that move wasn’t available to him, that he had to excel on his own, and that is not how I understand our organization to function.

Update, 2/25/16, 5:30 p.m. Eastern: Please see this update.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

February 24th, 2016 at 6:11 pm

Comments
  • Miguel Roig February 25, 2016 at 5:21 am

    An independent fact-checking process would no doubt increase the probability of spotting copied material, but it seems to me that a faster, more effective approach to prevent this sort of problem would be the use of professional plagiarism-detection software. For this particular set of articles, if the plagiarized material was derived from sources that were not password protected, it would have likely been flagged by some of the free plagiarism detection programs or even by a simple Google search.

  • Mary Branscombe February 25, 2016 at 9:26 am

    surely the answer would be to introduce fact checking to the web site stories and treat them as critically as the print stories; the medium shouldn’t gate quality

  • Jonathan Bailey February 25, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    This is really interesting when stacked up against what just happened at Digital Music News, when a reporter was caught plagiarizing four articles and the site just removed the stories and didn’t punish the reporter in any way. https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2016/02/23/plagiarism-comes-to-a-tech-blog/

  • Jonathan Leake February 26, 2016 at 10:40 am

    It seems disproportionate to highlight this in online posts like this that will be around forever – he’s just a kid and still learning.
    It also sounds like the real failure was in management. Anyone who’s been an editor knows that interns and new recruits don’t know the rules and often make mistakes like these – and its the managers’ job to catch it and put it right.
    WIRED failed to do that – but they are blaming the intern, not themselves. I don’t know all the background but it seems disgusting behaviour.
    Ivan – shouldnt you really be pushing WIRED on why it is letting an intern write & publish without subbing and fact-checking? That was totally unprofessional in itself. And on why they went public and ruined a kid’s reputation – presumably hoping it would save theirs.

    • Anonymous February 26, 2016 at 1:31 pm

      A 2014 college graduate doesn’t know the rules? I think pretty much rule 1 and 1A of journalism are: Don’t make stuff up; don’t plagiarize. It’s the kind of transgression that should follow someone who hopes to work in this business, to make other potential hiring editors aware.
      Yes, editors and fact-checkers probably should have questioned where the information came from but at some point you have to trust a reporter you’re paying is responsible taking facts and stringing them together coherently with their own words.

  • Anonymous February 26, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    A 2014 college graduate doesn’t know the rules? I think pretty much rules 1 and 1A of journalism are: Don’t make stuff up; don’t plagiarize. It’s the kind of transgression that should follow someone who hopes to work in this business, to make other potential hiring editors aware.
    Yes, editors and fact-checkers probably should have questioned where the information came from but at some point you have to trust a reporter you’re paying is responsible taking facts and stringing them together coherently with their own words.
    (Resent to fix typo; I figured 1 and 1A should be rules are as opposed to rule is, but then I typed it as rule are, which completely wrong or half write depending how you look at it.)

  • Jim February 29, 2016 at 9:21 am

    It’s overreaction to figure a kid one year out of school when plagiarism is so rampant online. Wired should have had him write a piece on what he was thinking rather than a holier-than-thou style execution.

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