Jeremy Duns

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Jeremy Duns - Author of ther Paul Dark series and Dead Drop

Nate Thayer is a plagiarist

Gosh. That's a bold headline, Jeremy. Are you sure?

Yes.

There's very little point in using euphemisms like 'deeply indebted to', as Felix Salmon did in his  update at the foot of this article, which is what alerted me to this (via Helen Lewis on Twitter). Plagiarism doesn't have to mean copying and pasting a whole article or book. It simply means lifting someone else's material without attribution. 

I don't have time to do a complete analysis of this, but as nobody else seems to have looked at in detail, and a lot of people are discussing Thayer's article 'A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist - 2013', I'm going to. Perhaps this will result in people saying I'm envious of Nate Thayer, or a plagiarism detective, or that I should get on with writing my next book, but the truth is I'd never heard of Thayer before this week, and I am writing my next book, but I find the prevalence of plagiarism in journalism today entirely depressing. I said I wouldn't blog about it, but I don't really see why Thayer should get away with this, and he will get away with it unless someone calls him on it. So I'm doing that.

The Atlantic dodged a bullet: Thayer's article, '25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy', is massively and unambiguously plagiarized from the article 'The Oddest Fan' by Mark Zeigler, published by the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2006. Earlier today I asked Thayer on Twitter why he hadn't credited Zeigler in his article, and he replied:

'Every quote in my article is from an interview or if not cited as.And I did cite Zeigler's article. Read before you libel.'

Oh, but I had read. 

Thayer claimed all the quotes in his article were either drawn from interviews he had conducted himself, or if not he had clearly and fully cited the source. This is not true – at all.

It is true that he cited Zeigler's article, but here's the bit where he did that:

'In 2001, North Korea formally invited Michael Jordan to visit Pyongyang, according to documents obtained by the San Diego Union Tribune in 2006, but Jordan declined.'

There's a serious problem with this citation. Thayer didn't hyperlink to the article, as he could so easily have done, and neither did he give the title of the article or name the author of it, Zeigler. But the major problem is that if you read Zeigler's article, almost everything in it also appears in Thayer's – yet this detail about Michael Jordan is the only one he cited.

Thayer's claim that every quote in his article is either from an interview he conducted himself, or that he cited it, is untrue. Here's one passage:

'In October 2000, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright traveled to Pyongyang in the highest-level U.S. visit ever to the country. Albright, after two days of talks, presented the 5-foot-3 Kim Jong Il a gift – a NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. Bob Carlin, who was with Albright on the Pyongyang trip and for three decades a top North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department, said “We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty– something with more importance to him. You could tell he was pleased. I don’t think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense. It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn’t just an ordinary ball.”

The hyperlinked word 'said' takes you to Zeigler's piece. But neither that word or any other in this passage was hyperlinked when the article was published, as this cache shows. Someone added that hyperlink, and two others, to the article after Thayer told me he had cited everything and accused me of libelling him. And without the cache, Thayer could have claimed that I or anyone else questioning him about this had read the article carelessly and simply missed the bolded hyperlinks. As well as lying to me that he had fully cited the article, he has now omitted to mention that he updated it in this way, which is in itself deceptive.

There also still aren't nearly enough hyperlinks – if he'd added the citations the piece needs, almost every sentence in it would contain a bold word. Instead of bolding the word 'said' in the passage above, for example, which suggests that only the quote following that word that was from another source, he should have hyperlinked 'October 2000', because in fact he lifted this whole passage directly from Zeigler's article:

'President Clinton's administration began thawing relations in the late 1990s, and in October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first senior-level U.S. government official to visit Kim in North Korea.

Their talks lasted two days, and before leaving, Albright presented the 5-foot-3 Kim a gift – an authentic NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.

Accompanying Albright on the trip was Bob Carlin, who recently retired after three decades as the chief North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department.

“We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty or a Buffalo Bill book – something with more importance to him,” said Carlin, now a visiting scholar at Stanford University. “He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don't think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense.

“It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn't just an ordinary ball.”'

This is blatant plagiarism, of the type that gets you kicked out of school. Even hyperlinking to such a huge lift without mentioning the publication or author at all would have been something of a stretch – it's a hell of a lot of material taken directly to cite with just one bolded word. But he couldn't even do that – until he sensed trouble, and added the bare minimum on the sly without telling anyone (or had the site do it).

But there's another troubling thing here apart from the plagiarism: Thayer doctored the quote. He cut 'or a Buffalo Bill book'. There are no ellipses indicating the cut. That might sound minor, but it isn't – it means he isn't to be trusted with the basic rules of journalism. He hasn't just lifted material and passed it off as his own, but he's changing quotes. That leads to fabrication.

So: Nate Thayer lifted this whole passage in his article from another writer, didn't cite any of it, passed it all off as his entirely own work, and even edited part of a quote for his own purposes. He then lied to me that he had in fact cited it properly, after which he added a hyperlink to the article he'd plagiarized, without mentioning it in an update or anywhere else, and still without showing the extent of what he had taken.

It's the sort of thing even Johann Hari might have blushed at. This isn't just a plagiarist. This isn't even just a plagiarist who rails against the plague of online plagiarism and the need for full attribution. This is a a very sneaky plagiarist indeed.

And this is by no means the only problem with Thayer's article. Almost every quote and piece of research in Zeigler's piece reappears in it, and apart from that one detail about Michael Jordan none of it was cited when it was published. It's barely cited now.

Here are just a couple of other problems with the piece. Compare this quote from Thayer's article:

'“Kim Jong Il was a huge basketball fan,” ‘90s NBA talent scout Tony Ronzone recalled this week. “He was absolutely addicted to basketball.”'

With this one from Zeigler's 2006 piece:

'Adds Tony Ronzone, director of basketball operations for the NBA's Detroit Pistons, who has made three trips to North Korea to conduct coaching clinics: “He's a huge fan. He's addicted to it.”

I asked Thayer if he had really interviewed Ronzone this week, and he insisted he had. But if so, what a coincidence! Ronzone used a few more words, and it's hardly the most extraordinary sentiment, but he repeated the same information in precisely the same order as he had done to Zeigler. What was Thayer hoping for in interviewing Ronzone? He had already read Zeigler's piece, which featured this quote from him, so presumably he wanted something more. At best, one could say that he didn't get a great interview and Ronzone unfortunately said nothing to him he could use for his piece except precisely the same thing he had to Zeigler in 2006 with a few modifiers. But it looks to me more like Thayer contacted Ronzone simply to show he had done some original research – what a coincidence, though, that what he got was a near-identical quote. It would be interesting to see if he transcribed his notes or recording more accurately than the plagiarized Bob Carlin quote.

Most of the quotes in Thayer's article are simply lifted without citation from Zeigler's piece, giving the impression Thayer obtained them. But here's another peculiar one:

'And yet basketball seems to provide one of the United States’ few windows into the North Korean regime. This was highlighted by a comment made by U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum last year, when he said: “Kim [Jong Il] doesn’t want to die. He wants to watch NBA basketball.”''

And here's Zeigler in his 2006 article:

'“Kim doesn't want to die,” Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said a few years ago after one of Kim's missile tests sent waves of fear across the globe. “He wants to watch NBA basketball.” '

The quotes are verbatim. Politicians often repeat themselves, but rarely word-for-word over six years apart. I can find no record of Santorum saying this in 2012, either. And Thayer had read Zeigler's article, and has now started surreptitiously adding in a few more cursory citations to it in an attempt to cover his tracks. If Santorum did say this again in 2012, Thayer gives no source for it. It looks to me like this quote has also been massaged, to make the piece seem more timely and important, playing into the fact that last year Santorum was running for president. It also saved Thayer from having to give Zeigler as the source for it. But it's really such an unnecessary deception, and yet one that must have been deliberately thought through, that one has to wonder what else Thayer has been up to. Because there is a plague of online plagiarism – and he's part of it.

UPDATE: New York magazine has looked deeper into it and found yet more incontrovertible evidence of plagiarism. The only way Gene Schmiel could have repeated, word-for-word, entire sentences to Thayer from his 2000 article in American Diplomacy (quoted and attributed by Mark Zeigler), is if he had the article on his lap and read excerpts aloud over the phone to Thayer, and didn't say he was doing so. Which is a stretch. Or hold on: perhaps Gene Schmiel was so enamoured of the article he wrote 13 years ago that he committed it to memory, and when finally a journalist dropped by to ask him about North Korean basketball diplomacy he reeled it all off, hoping Nate Thayer wouldn't notice. 

Oh no, even that doesn't work – because Thayer has now added in some flimsy citations to Zeigler's article, so he would have known full-well that what Schmiel supposedly told him 'this week' was identical to something he wrote in 2000.   

The New York article also quotes the editor-in-chief of NK News, Tad Farrell defending Thayer, saying: 'We trust the journalists that are writing for us. I don't have time to double-check everything that goes up.' Mr Farrell! It may not be your job, but if you can't pay someone to double-check copy before publishing it, you shouldn't publish it. Double-checking has other names in journalism: sub-editing, copy-editing and fact-checking.

Thayer and Farrell have also denied plagiarism to the Columbia Journalism Review. This segment of the article is especially odd:

'Thayer did not see the article before it was posted. The editing process created “numerous attribution errors,” Farrell said, and Thayer pointed them out after the story was posted. The mistakes were fixed, and this, Farrell said, accounts for why Duns noticed that links to the Union-Tribune piece were added in later.' 

Reproducing chunks of material from elsewhere and not attributing them is the definition of plagiarism. The idea that Thayer originally had all the attributions in place when he sent his article in, and Farrell mistakenly missed them out is just paper-thin: even now there are far too few citations – just three hyperlinked words were added to the piece, and one of those was then mysteriously removed. But if it was Farrell who somehow missed these laughably unsatisfactory attributions in the piece, it's hard to see why the version Thayer published on his own website doesn't have them in either. Are we asked to believe he also missed the attributions in the 'editing process' of reading through the article that NK News had published when posting it to his own site? My, what a coinkydink!
 
When I asked Thayer why he hadn't cited Zeigler, he told me very forcefully that he had cited everything, and accused me of libelling him: this means, presumably, that he accused me of libel without checking his article and seeing the 'citations' weren't there. And when he did finally spot that, why did he not tell me I was right, apologize, get them added and explain to me, on his site, below the article or anywhere else that his editor had accidentally missed out his attributions? 

And that he had also somehow missed them out when he published the same article on his own site. For someone so insistent he cited everything, it's odd that he still hasn't added these paltry few to his own site.

I think these denials are obvious nonsense. But I guess if you're unwilling to take an hour or so to read both articles side by side carefully, or are in a contrarian mood, they'll pass muster. Sadly, they usually do.

UPDATE:

Astonishingly, Sara Morrison of the Columbia Journalism Review has written an article claiming I have rushed to judgement and that Nate Thayer 'doesn't look like' being a plagiarist. Her reasoning for this is that I didn't call Thayer's sources to check what they said. Well, I didn't need to, as Thayer and Zeigler's articles spoke for themselves. There's material outside quotes in Thayer's article that is nearlyword-for-word from Zeigler's, but unattributed: that is called plagiarism. And the quotes are too troubling.

Sara Morrison seems to have been in a bit of a rush herself. Before publishing this article, she spoke to some of Thayer's interviewees. But not all. She writes:

'I was not able to contact Gene Schmiel — Thayer gave me a wrong number. I’ve asked, several times, for the correct one.'


I have just spoken to Gene Schmiel.

Nate Thayer did call him, and they did speak. But Schmiel still works part-time for the State Department, and so is very relucant to give interviews, because he needs to clear everything he says. So he said a few things to Thayer, but insisted that they stay off the record. To help Thayer out, he said he could refer to what he had written in his 2000 article for American Diplomacy.

Thayer did do that, but look at how he did it. He didn't attribute the quotes to Schmiel's 2000 article. Instead, he claimed that Schmiel had said them to him:

'Ri Gun “then moved to the TV, turned it on and stared transfixed at the opening jump ball of the NBA basketball between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Schmiel recalled in an interview this week.'

Schmiel didn't say any of that to Thayer 'this week'. The citation is fraudulent. The citation should be 'Schmiel recalled in a 2000 article for American Diplomacy' with a hyperlink.

Thayer didn't get a single on-the-record quote from Gene Schmiel. And yet his article has several Schmiel quotes, which he passes off as being said directly to him.

Schmiel did not want to give a new on-the-record interview, and so referred Thayer to his previous article. But Schmiel didn't ask Thayer to pretendhe had said the words in the article to him.

I look forward to Sara Morrison's retraction of the claim that I, not she, failed to research this properly. I had no need to call Schmiel when I published, because common sense and logic dictates that someone would not repeat long sentences verbatim to a journalist from an article they had written 13 year previously.And I look forward to Nate Thayer's admission that he is a plagiarist, too, of course.  

Though I'm not holding my breath on either of those things happening.

UPDATE

I have found more plagiarism in another article by Nate Thayer, written for Asia Times. Here's a post on how he does it, and covers his tracks.