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Octavio Roca leaves Miami Herald

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This from The New Times: (Scroll down; it's the second story)

The Xerox Man

Octavio Roca's credentials are stunning. The one-time chief dance critic for the San Francisco Chronicle also critiqued theater and music for the for the Washington Post and the Washington Times. He has co-authored at least one book, about opera great Renata Scotto, translated several plays, and even collaborated on a cantata.

So it seemed logical when Enrique Fernandez, Miami Herald features editor, hired him on September 4, 2003 as the paper's arts and culture critic.

But Roca left the paper this week. His description disappared from the Herald website and his byline was no more to be seen in its pages.

The apparent reason: plagiarism.

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I can't say why the write chose that word, but one definition of plagiarism is this:

to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

I think the propriety of recycling one's own work depends on the writer's contract. If the contract specifies (as I think most do) that the work must be original, or previously unpublished, then handing in something that's been previously published would be a violation of the contract. Recycled material has to have some indication ("Parts of this article originally appeared in XXX," or some such.)

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Wouldn't it also depend on who owns the copyright? If the San Francisco Chronicle owns the rights to Roca's first published articles, then reprinting them in another publication to which the Chronicle does not own the rights would be copyright infringement, if not "plagiarism" as the word is usually used.

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The Miami Herald had a long, thoughtful editorial on several problems the paper has faced lately, including this one. Here's the link (you have to register to read the whole story; it's interesting, as it deals with ethics generally):

The Herald's most valuable asset: your trust in us

In the past week, we parted ways with a talented arts writer and critic, Octavio Roca, who had produced several articles for The Herald that had been copied substantially from those he had written for newspapers where he previously worked.

When confronted, he sought to justify his recycling by likening himself to a college professor who delivers the same lecture to different students. And he argued that, because he was repeating his own words, he hadn't committed plagiarism, which is the theft of another's work.

But that rationale stood reason upside down. A reporter is less akin to a professor than to a student who is assigned to research a subject and to return with a report. The lazy student who submits the same term paper to satisfy the requirements of different courses would certainly be flunked in both classes. Such ''self plagiarism'' violates the fundamental expectation that, in a learning environment, all work must be original.

In this newsroom we have another term: breaking faith with readers, who expect that the articles in The Herald are fresh and timely unless it's otherwise made clear.

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I tend not to agree with Roca's viewpoints as a critic at all, but is this starting to make anyone else curious if we're getting the whole story? The article mentions another reporter who was fired for textbook plaigiarism stealing off another person's website. That reporter isn't named. It's Roca who gets tarred in this article and he's the one whose reputation is being destroyed because he stole from himself. I understand that this is a problem as well, but I also understand Roca's viewpoint to an extent. I've never copied from myself completely but I have reworked and refashioned sections of web posts into published articles. That said, I would not copy from an article that had been formally published; you owe it to an editor to give them material that had not been vended to another publication. Even so, does there seem to be more at issue here than what we're being told?

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The other reporter, not named, was caught before he was published. So no infraction was committed.

I'm sorry this happened to Roca. I knew him when he was in Washington, and I liked him. But I have no problem with the Herald's action. The Herald's explanation is common journalistic ethical practice as I've always known it.

[paragraph deleted; for those who read it last night, a colleague contacted me to say that union manuals and a paper's own regulations spell out their policies.]

Unfortunately for the writer, once something like this happens, the newspaper feels it has to assure readers of its policies, and trust has been broken (as the full editorial makes clear; I found its pledge to readers rather touching). There have been, also unfortunately, so many instances of this kind of thing in the past few years, and action has always been very swift and very final. Look at what happened with Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose errors in attribution were quite possibly, as she maintained, accidental.

Edited by Alexandra
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It’s very gracious of Alexandra to refer to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s difficulties as “errors in attribution,” but it should be noted that plagiarism is indeed an accurate description of the errors Goodwin committed in her book “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.” (I followed these events closely at the time the news broke.) It’s a long involved story, with some interesting complications, but in brief: Inadvertent copying, which is what Goodwin claimed occurred, also constitutes plagiarism and is punishable as such. It isn’t always regarded as being on the same level with deliberate lifting, depending on the circumstances, but it’s still technically plagiarism because the fundamental issue involves not only intent but negligence. (And the “I took all these notes and didn't keep track” defense is, alas, standard among plagiarists of all stripes.)

If memory serves, she also explained her borrowing of other writers’ sentences with, “There were footnotes” -- also an unacceptable defense. Nor were Goodwin’s copying problems limited to one work – around the same time, the Los Angeles Times did a pretty devastating follow up piece on Goodwin’s Roosevelt book “No Ordinary Time,” which also had footnote issues. (Goodwin is exceptionally well connected, so some people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the defense of a writer with this kind of problem tried to argue that she wasn’t really guilty, or only sort of guilty.)

Excuse the digression, but it did seem germane. Returning to the topic at hand, I’m sorry for Roca, but it seems to me that the paper did what it had to do. Borrowing from yourself is permissible in some contexts, but what he did here seems clearly unacceptable. It's too bad.

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This story may not be over. The New Times (the same newspaper that broke the story, and the writer, at least, seems to have no love for the Miami Herald) ran a news item that another writer, sports writer Dan LeBatard, also "apparently self-plagiarizes."


Editorial comment from me: I don't think using the same line or phrase in more than one piece would not be considered in the same light as recycling paragraphs or full stories. It's something that writers are aware of, I think. You'll hear people say, "Darn, I had such a good line and I wasted it on HIM!" meaning if you come up with something you fondly believe is brilliant, you only use it once. Not so much because of fears of being accused of "self-plagiarism" but because the line would be diluted each time it is used.

This issue has caused a lot of comment among writers, as one might imagine, discussing what the rules are, what one can and cannot recycle, and I think it's worth mentioning that if you have to review "Serenade" once every season, you're going to use words like "moonlight" and "romantic." You'll have to tell the story of the Girl Who Falls Down and, if you have room, why the men come in at the end. You have to tell the story, at least in a sentence or two, of "Giselle" or "Swan Lake" or whatever, too, and indicate whether this is a "traditional" version or a Freudian version. There's no way around that, in criticism, and the writer has to remember that every year there are people who see "Serenade" and "Giselle" for the first time. In political writing, too, there's only so much variety you can have. If you are (for the sake of example only) violently opposed to the war in Iraq, or to stem cell research, you're going to have your five or six reasons why, and your examples. If you're famous enough to be asked by several publications to write about it, you'll have to use those same five or six reasons and examples. The tone (and length, and choice of language) will be different if you're writing in USA Today than if you're writing in "Foreign Affairs," but you're not going to change your take on things. What you can't do is recycle the whole article without a line that says "This article first appeared...." With a very famous writer, or a celebrity, an editor will WANT them to tell the same story over and over; that's why they got you, for the story, or for your byline. It's the contemporary version of the old-fashioned "I dined out on that story for three years!" But if you only have one editorial and don't want to rework it, it would appear with the "first appeared" line.

Whether saying, for two different publishers, that Michael Jordan "ascended to the mountaintop" crosses the line -- I think that could be discussed. But we don't have enough examples of either Herald writer to know how extensive the recycling is, or isn't.

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The New Times (the same newspaper that broke the story, and the writer, at least, seems to have no love for the Miami Herald) ran a news item that another writer, sports writer Dan LeBatard, also "apparently self-plagiarizes."

I am not familiar with the Miami New Times, (I am now) but noticed the most recent article with a link above took me to a page/column with an interesting name "The B_tch.". Seems this women has a column/?byline with this name--guess she runs "hard" stories." Don't think this paper has any love for much of anything main stream.

Here is how the paper describes itself

When New Times purchased a small fortnightly newspaper in late 1987, the Miami metropolitan area was served by two dailies, populated with aging retirees, begging for tourists, and struggling to invent a place called South Beach. And of course it moved to a Latin beat.

Today the Latin beat remains, but a couple of other things have changed. There is only one daily paper. The median age has dropped dramatically. Tourists come to play all year round. South Beach's nightlife scene is world famous. And Miami New Times, now with a circulation of more than 100,000, has become the region's essential compendium of news and information for residents and visitors alike.

Drawing on the talents of an accomplished editorial staff recruited from all across the country, New Times has established a reputation for compelling stories ignored or overlooked by major media, for insightful coverage of local arts and entertainment, and for unflinching exposure of Miami's steamy political life. That reputation for high-caliber journalism has spread beyond South Florida. The paper has won more than seventy first-place awards for editorial excellence, statewide and nationally.

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It's a major alternative newspaper, one of a chain of New Times (the chain was started during the Vietnam War, after Kent State, and has been a watchdog on mainstream publications and the establishment generally). There are New Times in several major cities, some papers started from scratch, others bought (like the SF Weekly and the Miami one, I believe.)

I checked the Miami New Times "market profile": the readership is young (under 34), predominantly male, oriented to pop culture but also covers the arts, especially experimental arts. Runs articles like "Miami, still the poverty capital of the U.S." so they have that kind of a slant. (Their arts column is called Kulchur, and The Bitch is something you read a lot these days on blogs. It's an affectation of the young :blushing: ) But they are a serious paper and the claim of winning major awards is a real one, as is their circulation of over 100,000.

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I wonder also if Roca simply hadn’t been at the paper long enough to develop a constituency among readers and management that might have protected him from this kind of summary execution. (I think of the case of the columnist Mike Barnicle, late of the Boston Globe, who was eventually dismissed from the paper, but only after years and years of egregious heistings of other people’s work.)

And it’s not as if Roca was covering something really important and popular, like sports. :)

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I wonder also if Roca simply hadn’t been at the paper long enough to develop a constituency among readers and management that might have protected him from this kind of summary execution.

There's a link in Rachel Howard's blog (mentioned elsewhere on this site) to a letter by Mary Ellen Hunt about the uncomfortable feeling his work generated among other SF dance writers.

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Thanks. Rachel's comments are interesting and worth checking out.

It's nice to see that he's in print again. Assuming that the worst is true, which we don't know for certain, it seems to me that his were at most job-ending infractions, as opposed to career-ending ones.

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It's nice to see that he's in print again. 

I actually have the opposite feeling. I don't think what he did was the worst thing ever for a journalist, but he keeps moving on and getting jobs when now it is obvious, after reading a sampling of his recylcings, that somebody else should be getting the postions. There are a lot of writers around that would love to have his position and write fresh words about the performances he's being paid to see and write about. I don't think he should be tarred and feathered, but it was shocking to see how fast he got new work. It's hard to trust that anything he writes isn't recylcled.

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