The theft of words

Plagiarism is an affliction of lazy writers. Especially in the Internet age, people from high-school essayists to college professors to politicians to journalists may find it convenient to lift a few paragraphs or pages from someone else’s work and claim them as their own.

But plagiarism goes far beyond that. It is a form of cheating, of theft of intellectual property. It is the passing off, knowingly, of someone else’s ideas as one’s own. And it provides a glimpse into the character of those who engage in it.

We don’t know all the details yet of the case of alleged plagiarism that ensnared Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis this week.

We do know that McInnis’ campaign manager Sean Duffy said there were items in water articles McInnis wrote in 2005 and 2006 that should have been attributed — but weren’t — to Gregory Hobbs, a former water attorney and now a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. According to the Associated Press, McInnis apologized to Hobbs Tuesday.

According to the Denver Post, Duffy blamed the apparent plagiarism on a researcher who worked with McInnis in preparing the water articles — one Rolly Fischer. Longtime Daily Sentinel readers may recall Fischer as the former chief engineer of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. He left in 1996 during a dispute with the River District board.

McInnis was paid $300,000 by the Hasan Family Foundation, based in Avon, Colo., to undertake speaking engagements and write a monthly column about water.

In the wake of the news this week that McInnis’ writings may not have been entirely his own, the Hasan Family Foundation is reportedly considering demanding a return of some of the money it paid the former congressman.

To see that plagiarism is serious business, one need look no further than the University of Colorado. Notorious former professor Ward Churchill was fired from CU for academic misconduct that included a variety of violations of acceptable behavior. Plagiarism was prominent among them.

In the news business, those who are caught committing plagiarism are usually dismissed. Mike Barnicle, formerly of The Boston Globe, and Jayson Blair, a one-time reporter for The New York Times, are two high-profile cases of writers losing their jobs because they took other people’s writings and led readers to believe they were their own.

Just in the past month, Penn State University announced it will be using new software to help detect plagiarism in the application essays of those wanting to go to grad school to earn an MBA.

Regardless of who did the research for his paper, McInnis was ultimately responsible for the writings he submitted under his name. But that doesn’t mean that he personally committed the intellectual crime of plagiarism. We hope McInnis can make a solid case that he is guilty of nothing more than inattentiveness to the work of a research assistant.


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