Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Sixth Sense: Detecting Plagiarism and Errors of Fact

Many thanks today to freelance editor Gayle Johnson, who presents an intriguing study on how to use your intuition to spot errors as you edit.

If you’re a copy editor, you need more than just excellent spelling, grammar, and punctuation skills. You also need an ability to spot text that just doesn’t sound quite right. I call this “editor’s sixth sense.”

Blogger and former newspaper columnist Nancy Nall recently used her editor’s sixth sense to excellent effect in a story that made national headlines. As she wrote on her blog a few days ago, she became suspicious of a column written by White House aide Tim Goeglein, which appeared in the Fort Wayne, Indiana News-Sentinel.

So what in that particular column caught Nall’s attention? One small thing: a person’s name. Nall wrote on her blog: “I started to read, and a name jumped out at me—‘Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey,’ described as a ‘notable professor of philosophy at Dartmouth.’ ... Surely [Goeglein] can acquaint himself with notable professors of philosophy at Dartmouth while I watch the Oscars. But this name was so goofy, just for the hell of it, I Googled it.”

Nall’s online search revealed that Goeglein’s column matched almost word-for-word a Dartmouth Review essay written by Jeffrey Hart years earlier. After learning of Nall’s blog post alleging the plagiarism, newspaper staffers began reviewing Goeglein’s past columns. They found that 20 of 38 had portions copied from other sources. Goeglein resigned his White House job after admitting to the plagiarism.

Editor’s sixth sense can help you do more than just spot potential plagiarism, however. It also can help you find factual errors. (Even if your official job duties don’t include fact checking, I still recommend investigating anything that seems questionable.) In addition, your sixth sense can help you notice repeated text. I’ve edited more than one book in which the author inadvertently included the same sentence or even an entire paragraph more than once within the same chapter or in two different chapters. In such a case, your sixth sense says, “Hmm—that text sounds awfully familiar.”

Today it’s easier than ever to use technology to aid your editor’s sixth sense by checking out suspect text. It’s easy to search the file(s) you’re working on for repeated text and for inconsistencies in the spelling and use of terms, acronyms, and people’s names. You can use the Internet for occasional quick fact checking. (I also sometimes do online searches to learn more about a subject that the author mentions only briefly. Or when the author uses a term, acronym, or abbreviation that I haven’t heard of, I’ll look it up to see what it means.)

Take a moment to test your own sixth sense. Can you spot the mistake in each of the following sentences?

  • In a speech made in 1960, John F. Kennedy challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
  • In 1964 a group of mop-top teenagers from Liverpool, England—Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—took America by storm with their engaging brand of rock ’n’ roll.

In the first sentence, JFK made this statement in 1961, after he became president. In the second sentence, the Beatles were not teenagers in 1964. In February of that year, when the Beatles began their first U.S. tour, Starr and Lennon were 23, McCartney was 21, and Harrison was 20.

I remember the JFK example from a book I edited a couple years ago. I was pretty sure that Kennedy introduced his man-on-the-moon vision early in his presidential career, not while he was still a candidate. I thought maybe it had been a part of his inaugural address. But when I looked it up, I found that he made this remark in a speech before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. Concerning the second example (taken from an article in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2002), I happen to know a lot about the Beatles. But I suspect that even someone with limited Beatle knowledge might wonder if they were really just teens when they arrived in America.

If you’re considering becoming an editor, certain traits can help you develop your editor’s sixth sense:

  • Being well-read
  • Having a wide range of knowledge
  • Interest in a variety of topics
  • Curiosity
  • Attention to detail

Having a good memory also comes in handy!

1 comment:

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

You have serendipitous timing! I read your post, and then I went on later today to find duplicate information in the book manuscript that I'm editing. It's a fun book on interesting things to see and do in Texas, so it contains lots of vignettes. One event in a particular town's history is covered early in the manuscript, and then, 10 pages from the end, there the story is again, just told differently. I've now merged the two tales (and queried the author), because one had details that the other didn't. I'm sure that the author just had so much material, she lost track of which stories she'd already included.

But in editing another couple of manuscripts, I have caught plagiarized passages and flagged them for the publisher to discuss with the authors. The Internet makes this kind of catch so much easier than back in the age of the dinosaurs, when I began my career in publishing. ;-)