Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2006-01-02/Reporter plagiarizes Wikipedia

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Wikipedia editors expose journalist's plagiarism

By Michael Snow, 2 January 2006

Sleuthing Wikipedia editors have found several cases of apparent plagiarism over the past two years by Tim Ryan, a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. It began with the discovery of an article last month containing language that closely matched a Wikipedia article, and more investigation found earlier articles that seemed to borrow from additional sources without attribution.

In response to these reports, the Star-Bulletin acknowledged the situation by adding corrections or editor's notes to some of the articles. Star-Bulletin Editor Frank Bridgewater took these actions after investigating the incident and also met with the newspaper's publisher, Dennis Francis, about the situation. However, Bridgewater said last week that he considered the issue of whether any action would be taken against Ryan "a confidential personnel matter."

This is not the first time a journalist has used text that originally came from Wikipedia without indicating his or her source. Another case involving the German news magazine Der Spiegel was reported in March (see archived story).

Story prompts investigation

On Thursday, December 22, the Star-Bulletin published Ryan's review of "Secrets of the Black Box: Aloha Flight 243", a History Channel documentary scheduled to air that evening. The program tells the story of Aloha Flight 243, involving a 1988 incident in which part of the airplane's fuselage tore off at normal flight altitude and caused a flight attendant to be ejected from the plane, along with injuries to 65 passengers and crew, before the plane made an emergency landing.

Wikipedia editor TenOfAllTrades soon pointed out that several paragraphs in Ryan's story were strikingly similar to the text of the Wikipedia article on Aloha Flight 243. This discovery was prompted, he said, because he had recently responded to a question on Wikipedia's science reference desk about airplane doors and ended up reading the article. When he came across Ryan's story via a link from Fark.com, he recognized that some of it matched the Wikipedia article he had just read.

To address the possibility that Ryan might have written both articles, a check of the Wikipedia article's history showed that two different users wrote portions of the paragraphs in question, along with one person who edited without logging in. These edits were made between January and May 2005. Ryan's article did change the spelling of flight attendant Jane Santo-Tomita's name to Sato-Tomita, as it also appears in other coverage from the newspaper. Presumably the Star-Bulletin, which must have reported on the incident contemporaneously, would get this item right.

On December 24, after the matter was brought to the editor's attention, the Star-Bulletin ran a correction regarding Ryan's story. Based on the correction, Ryan apparently explained that he got the information from Reference.com rather than directly from Wikipedia. In any case, the newspaper acknowledged that the story "failed to attribute the information to either source."

Additional cases

With assistance from users Dragons flight and Calton, several other instances of possible plagiarism by Ryan were also identified. As Dragons flight commented, "a writer is never caught for their first act of plagiarism". The next to be discovered was a 7 June 2005 review of the Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV, some of which was traced to an article in the Sacramento Bee by Mark Glover, from 15 April 2005. TenOfAllTrades thought this might have a different explanation, however, such as both reporters relying on the same press release. Meanwhile, a travel article about Australia had language matching several other sites; Calton suggested it may originally have come from a government factsheet.

A more intricate case involved a 17 December 2004 article interviewing cellist Matt Haimovitz in connection with his appearance at a Honolulu arts center. Nearly all of the quotes from Haimovitz matched up verbatim with an interview conducted by Steve Inskeep in 2003 on All Things Considered. This was discovered because the remaining "quotes", if they were not exactly the same as on All Things Considered, corresponded to the text on NPR's website accompanying the interview instead.

The editors tracking down these cases thought the Haimovitz story was the most serious. As summarized by Dragons flight, Ryan "appears to lift material from the NPR story and pass them off as quotes from a personal interview he conducted. That would seem particularly wrong, and hard to explain." Ultimately, an editor's note added to the story stated: "Information for this story was gathered through an interview with Matt Haimovitz, but many questions and answers are similar to those in a National Public Radio interview with Haimovitz." A note acknowledging the Sacramento Bee was also added to the Toyota Highlander review.

According to an NPR spokesperson, the text on the website is written by NPR Online staff, and naturally is based closely on the audio interview. It is not known whether Ryan has ever been affiliated with NPR, but he appears to have written for the Star-Bulletin since at least 1996, based on a search of the newspaper's online archives. A Variety profile says he also reported from Hawaii for Variety and several other publications in that time. The profile adds that Ryan works out of his home and, as a surfer, "only has to glance over his computer monitor to the ocean below".

Also this week: Plagiarism

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