November 21, 2014

Plagiarism! It’s not just for Americans anymore


Image via Shutterstock.

This is about a contrite as this Frenchman’s going to get. Image via Shutterstock.

France has long been the nation to whom we callow Americans look for probity in intellectual matters and laxity in sexual ones. Their presidents always have at least one current mistress, but on the other hand, the French government has declared that books are an “essential good” and their culture ministers take bold stands against Amazon (we miss you, Aurélie Filippetti!). Whereas we allow our monopsonies to rampage through the book market, and reward serial plagiarists and fabricators with lucrative book deals and public platforms.

But now comes the news that Agnès Chauveau, the executive director of the journalism school at Sciences Po, has been accused of stealing and recycling material from Le Monde and other sources for her radio show, “Soft Power,” and her articles in the French editions of the Huffington Post.  Damn you, France! We thought we’d finally got you beat at something. Going to have to keep working on that cheese machine.

According to a Guardian article by Kim Willsher, Chauveau’s plagiarism was discovered by the website Arrêt Sur Images (ASI), “after it complained that Chauveau had used material from one of its articles about the future of the press on digital tablets, without citing its original research.”

After contacting the broadcaster, which immediately added a link to the original article in her Huffington Post article, ASI said it ran an online plagiarism check of about 20 of Chauveau’s columns.

It claimed it found that half of them contained at least one sentence directly lifted from the articles of other journalists, but some had two or three sentences that were used unchanged and were not attributed to the original author.

The ASI site has screenshots of the lifted passages on the pages where they originally appeared and in Chauveau’s articles. Chauveeau sort of apologized, saying that she “didn’t have the time to cite my sources on air” and that “I forget to cite certain articles but this is never voluntary and I will rectify this any time it causes a problem.” But it sounds like she took the material from others, used it on her radio show, and then recycled it into Huff Post articles which were based on her broadcasts: it’s hard to believe that someone could borrow another writer’s material and use it in two new media outlets without being slightly conscious that this was going on.

Not that this excuses this behavior in any way, but I have yet to see someone accused of plagiarism of Chauveau’s stripe, which isn’t the full-blown Stephen Glass-type of plagiarism with invented sources and incidents (and if you haven’t read Hanna Rosin’s excellent New Republic piece about confronting Glass, you should), respond by saying that they really just didn’t have anything original to say about topics like the future of the press on digital tablets, and that’s how they ended up taking someone else’s possibly also not-so-interesting thoughts about the subject and passing them off as their own. An honest admission of a general intellectual paucity, in other words. It would at least be a change from the crocodile tears.

The question remains how Chauveau will be treated in the French media, and maybe even more importantly in the academy. She has been suspended from her job at Sciences Po temporarily, but, as the recent reemergence of Jonah Lehrer with a co-author for his new book, UCLA professor Shlomo Benartzi, indicates, there’s always a future in lending academic credentials, even tarnished ones, to people who have made bad decisions and their books about how we make decisions. Doh! Don’t buy that book, guys, just don’t.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.