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Plagiarism or Sloppiness: What Happened to Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth?

Editor: Fix, Correct, Heal Yourself!

Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson is in the spotlight with her new book Merchants of Truth for all the wrong reasons.

Abramson has been accused of plagiarizing a number of passages in the book from other previously published material. Her initial response was to categorically deny this had happened. However, after reporter Michael Moynihan posted tweets showing several passages from Abramson’s book side-by-side with nearly identical content from other sources, Abramson pulled back, “reviewed the situation,” and is having the errors fixed.

What happened here?

It’s highly doubtful that someone with as long and distinguished a journalistic career as Abramson set out to purposely plagiarize others’ material in her own book. The passages cited are background and context setting material that would not be of issue had they been tagged with footnotes that referenced the original published source. Without the footnotes or references, however, the passages appear to be Abramson’s work when they really are not.

It looks like one of the industry’s best known editors missed the boat when it came to the editing of her own book. The question is how could something like this happen.

The book was published by Simon & Schuster—a well-established publishing house. How did this get through the various editors and reviewers who looked over the manuscript?   Perhaps someone along the way made the presumption that the work of a former New York Times editor didn’t need as much review and editing. Or perhaps someone was trying to save a few dollars by outsourcing this to the least costly resource available. Or trying to move too quickly and got sloppy.

I’ve edited and proofed a number of nonfiction books, some commercially published, some self-published, on a variety of topics. Often, I’m brought in to salvage a book after another editor (possibly offshore) has supposedly reviewed the manuscript, but errors remain. Some of these authors are fairly distinguished, highly educated, experts in their fields. Regardless, their work still needs review and editing.

Some times I find grammatical or punctuation errors. Other times I see repetitive phrases or unclear sentence structure. Still other times, I find problems with narrative flow or continuity.

It’s certainly not unusual for me to find situations like Abramson’s where attribution is missing. I flag these and direct the author to reference the source and add the proper attribution through a footnote or endnote.

That’s what good editors do, but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen here.

There are several lessons here for anyone who produces work to be published:

  • You can’t edit your own work. You can’t possibly get enough distance to read this with an unbiased eye. There isn’t a selfie stick long enough to give you the right perspective on something you create.
  • Don’t be wowed by the pedigree of the author. Everyone needs this kind of review. We are all human. The more prestigious the author, the more important it is that their work be as error-free as possible.
  • You get what you pay for. Yes, you can outsource this function to a cheaper resource, but is it worth it? A good, thorough, knowledgeable editor will cost more, but is more likely to catch errors like this.

Simon & Schuster will fix Abramson’s book in online and future print editions. But the cost to the reputation of both the publisher and the author is significant. After all, this is a book that is subtitled, “The business of news and the fight for facts.” Whoops.

Linda Popky is an award-winning Silicon Valley-based strategic marketing consultant, writer, and editor who helps organizations get heard above the noise. She is the author of Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters,  as well as the Executive Director of the Society for the Advancement of Consulting.

Linda Popky

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