Self-plagiarism? Are you serious?

So the charge has been thrown down: Denver Post political columnist Mike Rosen is a plagiarist. Of whom? Himself.

I am not making this up.

The charge is that Rosen copied columns he had written in the past nearly word for word and simply recycled them. My thoughts on this pretty much parallel what Rosen said:

When contacted about the columns, Rosen responded via e-mail with this: “So what? I’ve been writing columns for 30 years. What’s his point, that I’m plagiarizing myself? No need to reinvent the wheel when the same issues resurface. Presumably, some new readers haven’t read all my past columns. As William F. Buckley, Jr. once said, ‘Repetition is the price of mastery.’ I’m flattered that your ‘tipster’ follows me so closely. Sounds like someone who disagrees with my views wanting to be a nuisance.”

As some commentators note, you can’t plagiarize yourself. It’s by definition impossible. Plagiarism is taking the ideas of others without citing them, and you’re not a separate person from yourself. (Unless we’re in some bizarre posthumanist fiction where you can multiple copies of yourself and consider them the same person. Food for thought.) So then why is this a problem?

My father went to seminary to get a Masters of Divinity–essentially he went to grad school for preachers. One of the things that they drilled into him there (and which he told me; he loves telling me stories about seminary) is that you have to cite everything, which amazingly includes yourself. Otherwise you then commit the sin of self-plagiarism, and apparently have to go through the same judicial process as if you plagiarized someone else. (Unless you plagiarized Chuck Norris, in which you just die. Horribly.)

Just look at some of these academic sources; The Scientist writes that some journals who “have retracted papers in response” to self-plagiarism, which is the academic equivalent of being crucified. A PhD at St. Johns University has a whole section about avoiding it. And there’s even a tool to help find self-plagiarized papers.

Notice a pattern; this problem only seems to exist in the realm of academia, a place that, from my experience, is quite divorced from reality. Such as with this. They’ve made up a false “crime,” one that is impossible to commit by definition. In the academic world, they’re trying to cut down on people who are trying to “cheat” and boost their publication history by trying to get papers, although I would quibble as to if that is actually cheating and instead just good business sense. (And what is getting higher publication numbers to boost your career if not a business?) But in the real world, it doesn’t hold any water whatsoever.

Is it lazy? Sure. And while we should always avoid laziness in writing, sometimes, good ideas bear repeating. Rosen should have noted that he wrote the column before, and was recycling text; that’s just plain courtesy to one’s readers. But is it unethical? Hardly. If repetition was truly unethical, then we should all be condemning Micky D’s not for their burgers making us fat, but because the burgers are all the same.

This brings up another question, though: do Rosen’s readers deserve to know that he’s running a rerun (as one commentator put it)? I’m rather mixed. As I stated above, it would be a courtesy, and it certainly couldn’t hurt. But do readers deserve it? I think not. On the web its less important, but in print there’s limited space, so you can’t, sometimes, fit in disclaimers. (Online, the same guideline applies to Twitter and other microblogging platforms. And yes, I have seen that come up.) And if readers haven’t seen the previous material anyways–what’s the problem?

Self-plagiarism is a joke. A bad one. And people who “call in” to “snitch” on columnists doing it need to be told to go sit in the corner while the adults actually work on getting things done.

Obfuscation on Budget

I didn’t post this in the past two days for two reasons: one, I was ill. Posting while ill is not really a good thing unless its a strictly personal blog and/or you’re Todd Seavey. The other reason was that I was wrangling with it, trying to find the right way to write about it–or even to write about it at all.

I grew first disturbed when I picked up a copy of express–a free paper published by the Washington Post Company, but mainly having stuff from the wire services–on the Metro Tuesday, and flipped to page 11 to the story with the ominous title “Cuts for All.” Flanking a big image of Obama at a podium with some sneaky looking bureaucrat in the background were two columns: on the left, in green, were programs that were “winners” in Obama’s new budget; the on the left, in red, were the “losers.” Yet I noticed immediately that there was a problem with the columns: the winners were described in percentages, while the losers were described in billions of dollars lost. I instantly thought “Aha! The Post“–for those columns were from the Post, I discovered–“is trying to hide something! Maybe those losers aren’t really that big after all!”

Yet when I went back to my room and did some math, converting the percentages into hard numbers and the hard numbers into percentages, I didn’t really see anything jump out at me. Most of the losers’ scores in percentages were around 8-11%, while the winners’ hard numbers were around $4-6 billion, and are offset by the relatively huge $78 billion drop in military spending. They more or less matched up.

One of the most interesting things I took away from my journalism major in college was the critical thinking aspect, where we read books whose only goal was to teach us how to get past the bull. There were many interesting books in this regard; two of the best are “Asking the Right Questions” by Browne & Keeley and “unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation” by Jackson and Jamieson, which has the great rule “If it’s scary, be wary.” What I learned from those books has remained in my head, always on guard, so when I noticed that the Post was using two different means to measure budget changes, it sent up red flags. But when I examine it, there really doesn’t seem to be anything there. So then why in the name of jumpin` Jehosophat did they decide to do that?

However, the headline and text is far easier to rail against. “Cuts for All,” hmm? That would be really interesting, both because Obama is a fairly liberal (read: social democratic) president, and because nobody has ever really cut the budget in the past, oh, let’s just say 60 years. (Probably more like a hundred at this point.) Problem is though, federal spending in the new budget has actually increased. Mainly this is because of entitlement programs–Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid–which are on autopilot, without any input or real oversight by Congress (not that they would give any decent oversight anyways.)

This is exactly why some bemoan the mainstream media for having a “liberal bias.” Here we have a news story going on about how people are going to get squeezed and taxes are going to go up, and how we’re all going to feel these cuts. But when overall spending is increasing, you cannot have everyone feeling a cut. The title is misleading, the article is polarized, and it’s just sloppy journalism. If they instead said “Cuts for Elderly and Students” it would be accurate and I would have no problem, since those programs are facing cuts. But putting it that way, they’re just trying to alarm the public. And journalism is not a primetime network drama–it’s intended to be factual information to help people make informed choices in their lives, as well as contribute to the essential civic discourse that is at the heart of every democracy. Not doing a good job there on that front.

But what really got my blood boiling is yesterday’s New York Times entitled “‘ editorial “Out of Control in the House.” The part that annoys me:

First Speaker John Boehner’s Republican leadership proposed cutting the rest of the 2011 budget by $32 billion. But that wasn’t enough for his fanatical freshmen, who demanded that it be cut by $61 billion, destroying vital government programs with gleeful abandon.

Even that wasn’t enough for leaders of the hard-line Republican Study Committee, which represents two-thirds of House Republicans. They proposed cutting another $20 billion, for a ludicrous total of $81 billion, all out of the next seven months of government operations.

“Ludicrous?” They actually used that word? Let’s think about this here for just a second; last year’s budget was $3.552 t-t-t-trillion dollars, and the deficit alone was $1.171 t-t-t-trillion dollars. $81 billion? That’s only 2.28% of the budget and only 6.91% of the deficit. Considering the budget (and I’m going to assume the deficit as well) is slightly larger this year, those percentages will likely be smaller, probably around 2.0% and 6.5% respectively. Now, I don’t what the Times considers to be ludicrous–indeed, I don’t even know what they consider to be reality anymore–but a <3% cut in our budget is hardly “ludicrous,” unless one says “ludicrously tiny.” I don’t think that’s the Times’ angle here. Could be wrong.

Look at the rest of their rhetoric: “fanatical freshmen?” “Gleeful abandon?” Or further down: “If the Republicans got their way, it would wreak havoc on Americans’ lives and national security.” (Emphasis mine.)

The Times is certainly allowed some leeway here, since this is an opinion piece (whereas the ostensible “news” piece in the express has no such excuse.) But still, I don’t think that leeway extends to such frothing-at-the-mouth absurdity. $81 billion would barely have an effect on the federal government; even the $500 billion proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is only a first step, not a comprehensive solution.

There are some good points in the editorial, namely the call for the House GOP to focus on entitlement spending, since that truly is the driver for bigger government growth, but that doesn’t mean that discretionary spending can’t be cut as well. Such bombastic rhetoric is over the top. What next, are they going to start calling the Congresscritters who call for cutting our funding to the UN “isolationist barbarians?”

I apologize for getting so political about this, but it just really disheartens me when I see our news media going nuts like this. They’re doing a disservice to their readers and themselves, and are only obfuscating what’s going on in our world today. Journalism is not meant to be entertainment–sure, it can have its fun parts, particularly the weird news section–but its not supposed to go crazy. That’s one of the first lessons drilled into us at j-school: “Yellow journalism bad, straightforward and thoughtful reportage good.” Maybe our journalist writers need to relearn that.

Oof, you screwed up there

I just love capturing mistakes. I try not to point out things which are bad grammar or spelling–that just comes out as me being a nitpicker Grammar Nazi–but sometimes, I can’t help myself.

Like on this piece about the Ford Focus Electric, which points out what car parts you won’t have to worry about, since the car won’t have them. Point out which one shouldn’t be there. (I’ll give you a hint in the list.)

Here are the top 25 items that usually require inspection, maintenance or replacement during the 10-year, 150,000-mile life of a conventional car that the driver of a Ford Focus Electric will never have to worry about:

Air filter
Fuel filter
Fuel injectors/fuel pump
Motor mounts
Motor oil
Oil filter
O2 sensors
Power steering fluid
Radiator hose, lower
Radiator hose, upper
Serpentine belt
Spark plugs
Spark plug wires
Timing belt
Transmission adjustment (automatics)
Transmission filter (automatics)
Transmission fluid or oil
Water pump

Right. An electric car would never need a battery!

Good going Ford. Made yourself look real great there. Maybe next time you should think about these things.

It’d be one thing if they actually stepped forward and explained a battery’s inclusion on the list–are they saying that no one would have to service those lithium batteries? I am aware that they are different from what we put into our flashlights–but they don’t. The press release just ends. I’m assuming that they were trying to get to a nice, divisible-by-5 number that looks goods in quick figures, and someone just tossed that in there, but c’mon, they could have gone with just 24 things a Ford Focus Electric driver doesn’t have to worry about. Then they could say its Jack Bauer’s car. And who wouldn’t want to drive that?

(h/t FuturePundit)