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Plagiarism accusation touches off battle

Writer defends self, says author gave permission

Posted: December 18, 2009 10:15 p.m.
Updated: December 19, 2009 8:55 a.m.
A Signal column published Friday that lifted ideas and entire sentences from another writer's work touched off accusations of plagiarism, countercharges of politicization, and an apology from the newspaper's publisher.

A local blogger discovered similarities between Friday's article by conservative columnist Lynn Vakay and an earlier one by a Michigan college professor of economics and public policy. Early Friday, the blogger posted a side-by-side comparison showing the articles differ only slightly.

Vakay did not mention in her column Hillsdale College Professor Gary Wolfram, whose original article about federal health care reform appeared on the conservative blog on Nov. 30.

Each of the articles open with the same quote from founding father James Madison, followed by the same excerpt from the health care bill.

Signal editors said they would no longer publish Vakay's columns.

On Friday afternoon, Vakay and Wolfram said they have been friends for years and he had given her permission to use his ideas and "outline" for an article of her own.

Vakay said Wolfram's column inspired her but denied her column committed plagiarism.

"It's my own words," she said. "Yes, it's his outline and his premise that's in there, but that was my intent to use his very premise. I don't see how that can actually be called plagiarism."

Vakay is a local teacher and member of the 38th Assembly District's Republican Central Committee. She was also named vice chair of the Los Angeles Region for gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman's campaign.

She wrote her column independently of these groups, she and others said.

Vakay and at least one other local Republican lamented that column readers' focus may shift to her, rather than the message she was trying to convey.

"It upsets me that it seems like it's an attack from the Democrats who have attacked me often in The Signal," Vakay said.

Bob Hauter, president of the local Republican committee and deputy chief of staff for U.S. Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon, agreed.

He said he thinks the fact she's a woman and a teacher ­- both traditionally Democratic characteristics - has made her a target.

"I've seen her attacked before. She seems to me to be the one who probably does the best job of getting under the skin of the (political) left in the area," Hauter said. "I think it's much ado over nothing, and just a way to hide the football. The issue here is health care, and thank God she brought it up. I'd rather see the blogs spend the next couple of days debating that."

What is plagiarism?
To plagiarize, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is to "steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one's own; use another's production without crediting the source."

USC Professor Jonathan Aronson, an expert in intellectual property, said Vakay's column constituted plagiarism - despite the fact Wolfram had given her permission to use his ideas.

"In my view, it is improper what she did," Aronson said, adding it would have been a non-issue if she would have merely mentioned the source of the ideas.

"Is it actionable?" he said. "Nobody's going to sue her about it. She should be embarrassed by it."

The Signal responds
Signal Publisher Ian Lamont apologized to readers Friday.

"Ms. Vakay, a teacher, has provided a valuable lesson that the one who is hurt most by the act of plagiarism is the plagiarist herself," Lamont said. "Every month, The Signal publishes more than 50 guest columns, from SCV residents representing their own opinions and viewpoints. Knowing the effort and time that our guest columnists spend on their respective columns, it was sad to have one columnist attempt to take credit for the work of another.

"To all our readers, we apologize for the transgression."

Signal Editor Lila Littlejohn said the newspaper deleted Vakay's columns from its Web site after learning of the incident.

"We live in a society that tolerates ­­- even encourages - plagiarism," Littlejohn said. "Social networking is all about passing along material borrowed from elsewhere. We at The Signal recently confronted another Web site for presenting our RSS feed without attribution.

"Still, we believe strongly in preserving intellectual property rights. We are responsible for what we publish, and we must guard against infringement of those rights."

Signal Opinion Page Editor Josh Premako said the newspaper's editorial board "will be considering how to better prevent and address plagiarism on the opinion page."

Professor gave his permission
Wolfram has known Vakay for about five years, he said, adding the two share an interest in Republican politics and often chat or write one another on the subject.

Vakay took particular interest in his article "James Madison vs. Harry Reid" - a title that contrasts the U.S. founding father with the present-day Senate Majority Leader, respectively.

In the article, Wolfram echoes a warning from Madison that laws could grow so complicated that they become incoherent. He opines that the 2,000-page health care bill is the kind of thing Madison had in mind.

"I think the main thing is it's the idea that's important, not whether Gary Wolfram said it or she said it," he said. "Is it not in fact true that Madison warned us about what happens when we get really complicated laws? Isn't this 2,000-page law really complicated?"

He said he doesn't mind that Vakay borrowed his ideas, but joked that he wishes she had included a line encouraging readers to buy books by the "ever-brilliant Professor Wolfram."

Blogger, columnist find similarities
The similarities were discovered by a local blogger who has had three columns published in The Signal.

Nathan Imhoff, who described himself as a former pastor and Republican-turned-independent, said he found the similarities while conducting research for an article that would have compared Vakay with a liberal columnist.

"I wasn't out to get her," Imhoff said. "I stumbled upon it."

In one of his columns, he criticized Vakay for politicizing Thanksgiving in one of her previous articles.

However, Imhoff said his personal political philosophy is that both sides have it wrong - the correct answer is somewhere in the middle.

"Americans are clinging to their political parties rather than essentially what's best for them," Imhoff said. "I don't think the left has the answers. I don't think the right has the answers. I think they're something in the middle. They need to cooperate."


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