Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Journalism professor plagiarizes from student paper

A prominent University of Missouri-Columbia journalism professor has taught his students a powerful lesson in plagiarism by stealing information from a student newspaper and passing it off as his own.

John Merrill, a professor emeritus at the university's School of Journalism, was relieved last week of the Sunday column he wrote for the Columbia Missourian, a community newspaper written by students, after it was revealed that he lifted quotes and other phrases from an article in The Maneater, the independent student newspaper that serves the Columbia campus.

In a Nov. 9 letter to readers, Tom Warhover, the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation, explained that Merrill's Nov. 4 column about the university's women's and gender studies program "used three quotes and other phrases taken directly from an Oct. 5 article in The Maneater."

"Several journalists and journalism educators I spoke with referred to the use as the ethical equivalent of a misdemeanor, not a felony," Warhover wrote. "I believe the Missourian, and the School of Journalism, must hold itself to a higher standard."

Warhover's column quotes a letter of apology from Merrill:

“Let me say first that I am truly sorry about the plagiarism in my column about Women’s and Gender Studies,” Merrill wrote. “I thought I had mentioned The Maneater as the source from which I got the few and scattered quotes I used to spin off into my column. I always am sensitive to that. I thought I had done it in that column and was really surprised, when you called me in, to find that I had neglected to do this.

“But I assure you that it was ‘unintentional’ plagiarism, and I had no reason to make it look as if I got these quotes from the sources directly. I was using them as a springboard for my opinion. But I did it, and I’m sorry. Careless, I’ll admit, but not intentional. All these dozens and dozens of columns and some 30 books and innumerable magazine and newspaper articles and never before have I been accused of plagiarism.”

Missourian editors examined Merrill's columns from the past year and found five more columns in which at least one quote had been taken from other publications without attribution, Warhover wrote.

"Missourian policy does not allow any writer to appropriate someone else's words as his own, even when those words are within quotation marks," he wrote.

Update: Read about Merrill's response here.

Hat tip to Scot Tucker of San Francisco State University for alerting us to this story.

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