Michigan Daily Sued by Former Editor Accused of Plagiarism

A former senior news editor at The Michigan Daily who resigned last year amid allegations of plagiarism is suing the paper and university for “being wrong in their assessment,” failing to afford her the opportunity to defend herself, and triggering related emotional distress.  As the Daily itself reports, the ex-staffer, still a University of Michigan student, is seeking total damages of more than $100,000.

It is a somewhat complicated case, with numerous layers and two main gray areas- the definition of plagiarism and proper university involvement in an editorially-independent student press.

The basics: In a regular feature titled “In Other Ivory Towers,” the Daily provides a brief rundown of what’s happening on campuses nationwide, based on “a compilation of news from sources across the country.” A February 2009 issue contained a “Towers” write-up that included a number of unique phrases and entire sentences that were identical to those appearing in the reports of the original sources.

According to the paper’s editor in chief at the time: “While this particular piece cited these three sources, it inappropriately took complete sentences and phrases verbatim from them without using quotes. This implied the material was paraphrased when, in fact, it was not.”

The lawsuit in PDF form.

In the summons filed on her behalf, the former editor is alleging that no plagiarism occurred because she openly attributed the information to the sources.  The student’s lawyer: “I looked at the dictionary for the definition of plagiarism and it said something to the effect of ‘presenting one’s work as its own.’ I’ve read the article and the whole scope of the article is that it’s addressing and attributing the information, the comments, to the various other campus papers. At no time did I ever interpret that as saying that it was her own work.”

In a personal review of the “Towers” under dispute and the original pieces they cited (check them out: a Diamondback articlea Chronicle of Higher Education news brief, and a Chronicle of Higher Ed full report ironically related to plagiarism), the whole shebang looks less like purposeful plagiarism and more like “laziness and corner cutting” (see page 6 of the summons complaint). Either way, a student attaining a position of senior news editor at a distinguished campus newspaper should know better.

The student states that her resignation and public plagiarism accusations resulted in “emotional distress, humiliation, mortification, embarrassment, ostracism, depression, sleeplessness and anxiety . . . digestive problems, vomiting,” the loss of a scholarship tied to her Daily involvement, temporary withdrawal from school, and a suicide attempt.

And in the final wrinkle to the case, she is not just blaming the Daily for these problems.  The student also alleges, “The University of Michigan had an obligation to oversee the student run newspaper . . . and failed to do so thus endorsing and sanctioning the wrongful treatment of [the former editor].”

It is a hard sell.  The university is involved on at least one level- with the student’s resignation from the paper leading to a loss of a scholarship of some sort.  But the newspaper is financially and editorially independent of the school and has a related oversight board of its own to deal with controversial situations such as this.  As the editor in chief at the time told readers, “We take plagiarism at the Daily very seriously. . . . We hold other campus institutions to this high standard, and we believe we should hold ourselves to the same standard, if not a higher one.”

Leave A Comment