Ryan Chartrand

After watching last year’s team of editors deal with the incident of a freelance cartoonist plagiarizing one of his cartoons for the Mustang Daily, we hoped to begin this year with a fresh slate. Sadly, plagiarism has come to haunt the Daily again. And again, we’re apologizing to you, our readers, for unknowingly publishing plagiarized material.

Sarah Bailey was a freelance nutrition columnist who wrote 19 columns for us from fall 2007 to winter 2008. Her weekly column, “Check your Pulse” dealt with nutrition issues that students would be interested in. Being a nutrition major and a member of student peer-health group PULSE, we had faith that she knew what she was writing about. The consistent writing style further hid the fact that a very large portion of Bailey’s writing was not her own.

Suspicion was raised when Cal Poly’s Policy Abuse Office notified the Mustang Daily that one of Bailey’s earlier columns, “Just a spoon full of sugar?” infringed on the copyright of a dietician and online writer.

Bailey’s column was confirmed as plagiarizing at least two full paragraphs from the writer’s Web site. Knowing that plagiarism – like the proverbial little white lie that continues to grow – doesn’t usually begin and end with one instance, we investigated further. We simply took sentences from Bailey’s columns and put them through a Google search. Time and time again, the exact same words came back to us, copied straight from someone else’s article or essay.

We found various portions of plagiarized material in each of her columns, which led us to immediately pull all of her columns from our Web site.

Even some leads, transitions and colloquial sign-off lines – parts of a column that give it personality and originality – were taken from other sources.

It’s hard to even put into words the frustration, disappointment and embarrassment the editors at the Mustang Daily feel when something like this happens. We take immense pride in publishing one of the best collegiate newspapers in the country. We abide by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and moreover by the universal understanding that plagiarism is never ethical.

In retrospect, readers often ask their newspapers how incidents like this happen in the first place. How did Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke fool readers and editors and manage to win a Pulitzer prize for her entirely imagined story “Jimmy’s World”? How did New Republic reporter Stephen Glass manage to make up entire events, sources and quotes for his articles? How did New York Times reporter Jayson Blair manage to fabricate and plagiarize his way through the ranks?

Simple: because editors prefer not to have to go in with an attitude that assumes some of their writers may not be honest. We respect our reporters and freelancers and don’t initially assume guilt. Rather, we go in assuming integrity and honesty, especially from writers who’ve gone through four or more years of college.

But with two plagiarism cases in such a short amount of time, the Mustang Daily has no choice but to take pro-active steps to avoid it in the future. All freelancers will have to sign a contract stating that they understand what plagiarism is. Moreover, all of our writers will be put on notice that we will be performing random plagiarism checks throughout the year. Luckily for us, the same Internet that makes copying so easy for some writers, makes searching for those copied words just as easy for us.

We want to emphasize that freelance columnists are volunteers who don’t receive compensation or academic credit for their writing. Their only commitment is to meet the deadline for the weekly column that they initially volunteered for. The Mustang Daily encourages non-journalism majors to write for us, because we value the knowledge and perspectives that come from different backgrounds. Although these two recent cases of plagiarism were committed by non-journalism freelancers, we expect all of our writers to abide by the basic principle of honesty we should all understand by the time we begin our adult lives.

The previous team of editors signed Bailey on as a columnist because they wanted a Cal Poly student who was knowledgeable enough about her major just to write – without having to gather other people’s words from around the Web. They could just as easily have put a syndicated national column in that place, but preferred to give a Cal Poly student a chance to voice her expertise. Sadly, that’s not what we got.

In a letter to Mustang Daily editors and readers, Bailey apologized; “I realize that there are really no excuses for letting this happen and if I could take it away, I would in a heart beat. All I can do now is offer my sincerest apologies to everyone and hope it prevents people from repeating my mistakes… I consider myself a hard-working and honest person and I would never in a million years try to steal someone’s work and pass it off as my own on purpose.”

She explained that she would aggregate information from numerous online articles and combine them into a large document. From there, she would edit the article down, but apparently failed to put the information in her own words.

“I was genuinely shocked to find out many of my articles contained material that was considered plagiarism. I am so sorry that I could have been so careless to let this happen because it was never truly my intention,” Bailey continued in her letter.

She has already graduated from Cal Poly so the consequences, if any, from the university are unknown.

We sincerely apologize to you that this incident has occurred. The Mustang Daily holds itself to the highest ethical standards, and we’re making the greatest effort to ensure that plagiarism never comes to tarnish our pages again.

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