Student Newspaper: Hepatitis, Body Piercings Did Not Cause Plagiarism

In a fascinatingly frank staff editorial earlier this month, editors of The Mac Weekly at Macalester College confirmed a fairly recent op-ed on the ill effects of DIY body modification was NOT copied from another student newspaper. Editors felt compelled to respond publicly after an anonymous tip alerted them the piece may have been lifted from a separate student newspaper published 650 miles away.

This slightly odd tale — one that involves sauerkraut, smelly shoes, hepatitis B and C and “home-done piercings” — begins last spring at Indiana’s Earlham College. While a student at Earlham, Zosha Winegar-Schultz worked as a desk editor for The Earlham Word campus newspaper.

In April, during her Word stint, Winegar-Schultz “was actively involved in the writing and editing process” on an article about the dangers and potential damage of do-it-yourself body modification. She subsequently transferred to Macalester and this fall has been writing news and opinion pieces for the Mac Weekly. Her most recent rundown appeared early last month — an op-ed detailing the dangers and potential damage of do-it-yourself body modification.

Sound familiar?

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As Winegar-Schultz shares in the op-ed, headlined “Hepatitis is a Friendship Killer: Don’t DIY Bod-Mod”:

“When it comes to relatively risk-free home activities, making sauerkraut, toilet paper cozies and decorating your smelly pair of shoes are totally appropriate, but body modification should be left to professionals. … When an unsterilized … needle [creates] hundreds of tiny puncture wounds, a gateway opens to your circulatory system. Then, diseases like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and tetanus sneak into your body and can cause serious complications. … If you really want a tattoo or piercing, you owe it to your future self to get it done safely and beautifully. And also because staph infections suck.”

So do acts of unethical journalism.

Yet, after receiving the email heads-up about the “potential issue of plagiarism” and reviewing the Mac Weekly and Earlham Word pieces closely, Mac Weekly editors “concluded that the articles, though addressing the same topic, are distinct from one another.”

The eds. also reached out to the writer of the Word column. She further confirmed that, from her perspective, there was no harm, no foul and no plagiarism.

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So why share all this with Macalester readers? According to the Mac Weekly staff editorial:

“The reason we want to make you, reader, aware of this issue is twofold. First, one of our goals as an independent student newspaper is transparency with our readership. We want you to feel comfortable knowing that we share with you what goes on in the production and management of this paper. Second, we want the Macalester community to be fully aware that we are constantly concerned with how we navigate the grey areas surrounding the issue of plagiarism. Though it is rare that an accusation such as this one comes about, we are always working to make sure that our content is no one’s work but our own.”

What do you think?

Is erring on the side of transparency the right call here? Or is it a waste of column inches, web space and readers’ time simply to tell them everything’s A-OK with something they knew nothing about and didn’t care about to begin with? Separately, is it maybe a tad insensitive to name a staffer and align her long-term with a Google print involving plagiarism — even if the whole shebang is focused on defending her integrity? And, bigger picture, what is the line between an ethical adaptation of a cool story idea and what is sometimes referred to as plagiarism of thought? Put another way, when does DIY journalism morph into intellectual theft?

Related

Student Editor Fired for Plagiarizing for a Year from More Than 20 Sources

Ethics Alert: Should Student Reporter Who Fabricated Sources Be Outed by Editors?

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