A few weeks ago, my work was shamelessly plagiarized by a staff writer at the Toronto-based Arbitrage Magazine.
I know this not because I am an Arbitrage reader, but because the writer tweeted the article to me.
But honestly I feel terrible that it happened. I’m not angry at the writer (to the point that I have decided not to include his name here to spare him a bad Google-Scarlet-Letter forever). Though he clearly made mistakes, it was really his magazine and its negligent and cowardly leadership that failed us both.
Before I get into that, let me give some background.
In 2012, I wrote a book called Trust Me, I’m Lying that was an expose and criticism of our modern media system. While it didn’t exactly change the world, it became a bestseller and received a significant amount of attention. In 2014, a certain writer came along with an article in Arbitrage magazine titled “Conflict, Controversy, and Crap: How Social Media Is Used To Profit From Your Anger” and proceeded to rip off my research and claim it as their own. Their article borrowed not only multiple examples I had researched in my book Trust Me, I’m Lying—including ones directly from own experience—but copied some sentences verbatim. I do not appear anywhere in the article.
And we know he read my work because again, he told me that he did!
In my book, I quoted a line from an obscure essay written in 1826 by William Hazlitt. Check, so did he. I quote study published in 2010 by Cision about problematic media sourcing. Check. I tell the story of Jezebel writer Irin Carmon going after the Daily Show. Again, check.
A sentence from my book:
“Every decision a publisher makes is ruled by one dictum: traffic by any means.”
“In the modern age of journalism, the business philosophy that guides companies like Gawker, Business Insider, or the Huffington Post is these simple words: Traffic by any means.”
And on and on and on. Of course, the article is now deleted and all I have are screenshots of part of it from Google Cache. So these are the only examples I can show for a fact. But I recall even more.
On seeing this, I was upset. I sat on it for a few days. Then I emailed both the editors in chief and the managing editor. I remember thinking: I don’t want to alarm the publisher, this is probably just a low-level issue. The response? None of those people worked there anymore because their masthead was out of date. But one of them passed me to someone in “a senior editorial position.”
So I forwarded the email to this person. Two days later, they finally responded…to tell me that the publisher had emailed me. Oh, and that a note had been sent to all the writers about ethics. Of course, the publisher had not emailed me so who knows about this note. I waited a little more. I emailed the publisher, David Alexander, directly.
By now I was genuinely upset and said so. This was the fifth or sixth person I’d contacted. The fish clearly rots from the head. Mr. Alexander finally replied to my email. I won’t bore you with his entire response but I’ll share the two most surprising lines:
“I’m not going to argue with you about whether there was or wasn’t plagiarism. You know your own work and given your background, I will take you at your word that there was misconduct on [Writer Name’]s part.”
“[Writer] is a young writer whose fairly green when it comes to journalism; he showed promise in his application and first few articles, so this came as a surprise. He has now been placed on probation and I will have to decide soon whether to let him go completely.”
Oh, and he deleted the article so no one can look at it anymore.
At this point, I reply to David Alexander and offer to send him a copy of the book. I explain again that I would like to deal with this quietly and personally so that a young writer can learn from the experience. But no one can learn—especially not the publication itself—if no one is willing to actually look at what happened. Re-reading my original email, I see that I also explicitly stated, “I don’t want anyone fired. I would be more than happy if a young writer learned from this and walked away wiser and better for it.”
Mr. Alexander replies a day later that he’s fired the writer. Not that he did any additional investigation or asked me for specific instances of plagiarism but because “rumors about the incident” had “spread around [his] team over the past few days.” He nonetheless insisted that the plagiarism by the writer was not intentional.
That’s the kind of publication that Arbitrage Magazine is, apparently. They’ll fire you on accusations of misconduct (that they decline to substantiate) but at least they’ll meekly defend you in a private email! Talk about a worst of all roads, they don’t stand up for their employees, don’t hold them accountable either, and don’t care enough about their publication to behave honorably toward the people it wrongs.
If there is one thing I despise, it’s timid, ass-covering organizations that subvert their own stated mission to avoid a little controversy. Fire someone because of rumors? Who does that? And what does that solve? Because, trust me, the controversy comes anyway. And that is why I am writing this article.
To let it be known that publications like this are not only running what appear to be shoddy, unsupervised operations, but also don’t know how to make it right when that operation inflicts collateral damage.
I’m a young writer myself. I have made mistakes. In my newest book, I borrow from all sorts of ancient and classic sources. I even felt compelled, in the acknowledgements, to address the fact that there was the possibility that I might have leaned too heavily in some cases. And I thanked all of them for their contributions and created an extensive bibliography. Still, I actually understand the Stephen Ambrose accusations—in the midst of a big project, you can lose the thread of attribution sometimes.
Maybe that’s what happened with this writer. I don’t think it is, but if I had known that his publisher wasn’t going to him even a partially sincere look, I’d have given him the benefit of the doubt. If I had known that they would behave so shamelessly, I would have let it slide.
The writer is an adult. He has to deal with the consequences of his choices. I get that. I get that I have to as well–I decided to make a complaint, I knew where it might end. But Arbitrage is not some tiny publication. It has numerous writers and a chain of command. They all failed here. Worse yet, they failed when they had an opportunity to respond somberly, fairly, and ethically.
The result is that a young writer lost his job. I feel bad about that. I feel worse still that he’s not able to learn from what happened (and dude, if you want to email me, I’m not mad. I’m happy to walk you through the problems with your writing). But I’d rather be ripped off than cost someone else their job.
Arbitrage—and all the publications like it—that’s on you.
Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of the forthcoming book The Obstacle is the Way.