The Werleman Mess, involving an atheist journalist’s repeated plagiarism in pieces in both Salon and Alternet, seems to have reached its conclusion. I’ll briefly give the upshot, as I’m soon off to walk around Plovdiv.
The Werleman story is not pretty. I think the following is an accurate summary; if there are errors or corrections, please put them in the comments and I’ll deal with them later.
1. On the website Godless Spellchecker, its author detailed about half a dozen instances in which Werleman copied phrases directly from other sources without attribution. This is plagiarism, pure and simple. Many people seem to have thought that plagiarism involves the theft of ideas, not words. It can be both. Facts and ideas, if not your own (or in common currency) should always be referenced. But you don’t need to reference a widely known fact like “Paris is the capital of France.” When you use someone’s words without attribution, however, it is always plagiarism.
2. The number of instances of Werleman’s plagiarism expanded when Michael Luciano, at the Daily Banter, listed fourteen cases in total. These are not merely coincidental usages of words, but must reflect deliberate copying.
3. Werleman first tried to minimize the theft, imputing it to failures in putting quotation marks around one quote and to a few editing mistakes, but the magnitude of the theft belied that. I predicted that eventually Werleman would have to apologize, and eventually he did, on his Facebook page.
4. Werleman’s apology was here, but seems to have mysteriously disappeared overnight, and I can’t find it anywhere. You can find a summary of it, however, in another post by Godless Spellchecker called “C. J. Werleman releases plagiarism nonpology.” It is a “nonpology” in the sense that while Werleman admits that he did commit plagiarism, he minimizes its importance by showing how many pieces he published, which, he thinks, dwarfs the fourteen known instances of plagiarism. That is a ridiculous defense, I think, for even a couple of instances of word theft are serious, impugning a journalist’s ethics. Certainly the evidence to date would have resulted in a journalist at a reputable venue, like the New York Times, being fired.
UPDATE: Werleman has written a newer apology that, as a reader notes below, is here. I won’t comment on the latest version; you can make of it what you will
5. Werleman also blamed his being hounded for plagiarism on Sam Harris and his followers, who dislike Werleman because he’s repeatedly gone after Harris. Harris, though, had nothing to do with Werleman being “outed.”
6. Bizarrely, Werleman then accused Harris of having also engaged in plagiarism. As Harris explained in a post, that accusation was untrue: the “words” Harris lifted from somebody else had actually been written by Harris himself in a piece that appeared two years before the piece from which he supposedly plagiarized.
7. In what is surely the weirdest part of this incident, it appears that Werleman engaged in three instances of sockpuppeting to support himself, using a Twi**er handle “@Women4Atheism,” a later version of an earlier feed called “@ShitMyJesusSays”. Neither of these had anything to do with woman and atheism. Further, Werleman appears to be the creator of a website called “Critical Cranson” (subtitled “One New York girl’s musings”), which was where he/she/it accused Harris of plagiarism. “Critical Cranson” was created on October 20, and has only one post: the incorrect accusation that Sam Harris was guilty of plagiarism. There have been no posts since.
All of this sockpuppeting is described and supported with evidence by a site called “SomewhatMoreCriticalCranson.” It’s fascinating to see the evidence of sockpuppeting accumulating, and the website’s author appears to have done a fair amount of research. It’s the visible record of Werleman’s unravelling.
8. Werleman begins melting down on Twi**er. My theory is that, caught dead to rights, he simply can’t accept his public humiliation, and so lashes out at others in a vain attempt to exculpate himself. Here’s one example:
“Hyper anti-theistic”? Werleman is an atheist, too, and has published stuff that would be seen as “strident” atheism. And what “death cult” is he talking about? If there’s any death cult, it’s jihadist Islam, not Sam Harris’s ideas.
9. But the most important issue is how Werleman’s two venues, Alternet and Salon, handled his plagiarism. Alternet did the right thing and simply removed all of Werleman’s pieces with an explanation:
Salon, however, was completely lame, and simply said this:
I find this absoutely unbelievable. First, what Werleman did (by his own admission!) was plagiarism, not “improper sourcing.” Second, Salon did not remove the plagiarized articles but simply added hyperlinks to the sources of the plagiarized material. They apparently don’t even indicate on the four stories that parts of them were plagiarized. Finally, besides leaving the stories in, they leave all of Werleman’s stories in. In other words, he receives no sanction, and Salon buries the fact that it published plagiarized material—possibly because they don’t want to look bad for having done that.
Salon’s behavior is execrable, but that’s to be expected from an online source that has gone increasingly downhill to the point where it’s basically click-bait: an online tabloid. They clearly adhere to no journalistic standards, and have no sense of propriety.
As for Werleman, it’s sad that somebody with promise could stoop so low, and even sadder that he doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of what he’s done, which is to discredit himself as a journalist. Although he issued an apology, which to me is unconvincing, he continues to rage on Twi**er. And, except for the possible Alternet ban, his career at Salon (if you call that a career) appears set to continue.
Finally, Sam Harris said on his terse post about the issue (“Just the facts: A response to a charge of plagiarism“), “This will be the last thing I ever write about C.J. Werleman.”
That goes for me, too.