Saturday, May 05, 2012

Old Times: conclusion

So, the Times obituary for Elaine Pritchard, a piece that seemed so impressive only last Monday. After a week uncovering its unacknowledged sources, what does that leaves us?

Not much, would be a short reply - and a true one. The obituary, far from what it initially appeared to be, is in fact a farrago of unacknowledged borrowing disguised as a piece of scholarship.

In this week's articles I have concentrated almost entirely on the issue of quotations. Simply from these alone, it is evident that at least four different sources appear to have been copied from without the slightest acknowledgement. These are:

  • Edward Winter's online article Chess Prodigies
  • The 1983 Pergamon book British Chess
  • Golombek's 1977 Encyclopedia of Chess
  • Sarah Hurst's article on Elaine in CHESS of October 1997.

From these sources, quotations have been copied wholesale, sometimes at length. They have also been altered without indication and stitched together with the stitching hidden from view.

Some - if only some - of the faults in the piece could be written off as minor transgressions, if they were considered in isolation. To my mind transgressions nevertheless, but not fatal ones. The trouble is first, that this is not true of other faults: second, that the obituary is a whole parade of transgressions.

As I say, the copying of quotations from those sources is wholesale and unacknowleged. Whether any of the other material is drawn unacknowledged from these sources, I leave the reader to judge. But one effect of omitting to mention original sources for quotations is that the reader who is unaware of these sources will not find themselves comparing them with the obituary. Readers of this week's pieces will, however, be able to see the sources, compare for themselves, and come to their own conclusions.

Of course the standard of citation required in a newspaper piece is not the same as that required in an academic paper. But that doesn't mean that there are no standards at all. Nobody would expect every single short phrase or every secondary source to be cited: but here the borrowing has been wholescale - huge chunks of text - and systematic. The same can be said of the failure to acknowledge sources.

There is no question that copying has taken place here: the only question is whether (or how far) it is acceptable. Personally I am not persuaded that the rampant borrowing of long quotations from other people's work (or their disguised alteration, which is also rife in the piece) is acceptable ethical and journalistic practice.

Then again, it doesn't matter what I think. But it matters what they think at the Times.

[Comments are welcomed, but please be cautious in what you write and remember that the piece under discussion is unsigned.]


Ryan said...

It seems that the author wanted to put together a fitting obituary and succeeded in doing so.

Given the number and length of the quotes, correct attribution would have been polite, and more journalistically 'ethical', but these judgements are rarely black-and-white, and I certainly wouldn't want to cast the first stone.

ejh said...

Another view would be that the author set off to copy other people's work without mentioning them. Which is black-and-white, pretty much.

Anonymous said...

A rather better known player of course, but obituaries don't usually quote sources.,,2243089,00.html

Both are signed, does that make a difference?

ejh said...

Re: this "obituaries don't quote sources" stuff, obituaries do not usual copy stuff wholesale from other places. I think the idea that you have a free pass for copying, because it's an obituary, is probably not altogether correct.

Anonymous said...

This article did actually quote sources, it was just that they probably weren't the author's sources. Tape and scissors, cut and paste. They're not that different are they? I hope Murdoch approves.

DWL said...

Is the elephant in the room the fact that Raymond Keene is suspected to be the author of the obituary?

Anonymous said...

Did the "Penguin" himself have a Keene interest in this mess?!

ejh said...

Is this particular place we'd prefer not to speculate on the identity of the author.

Should people wish to do so in other places, that's entirely their own affair. But the fundamental point of this series of articles was to analyse the composition of the obituary, to demosntrate that large-scale copying - and various kinds of alteration - had taken place and to ask whether or not this was really acceptable.

I'm happy that this has been done pretty much as I set out to do.