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The New Yorker Plagiarizes Itself

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As I read Elizabeth Kolbert's Comment "Rough Forecasts" in the April 14, 2014, issue of The New Yorker, I was struck by her quoting the late Nobel Prize-winning chemist F. Sherwood Rowland as saying, "What's the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we're willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?" I had reason to be struck. The quote had been taken word for word and without attribution from the second of two articles I had written for the magazine about Professor Rowland and his pioneering work in warning about the depletion of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbon chemicals. The article containing the quote was entitled "Annals of Chemistry: In the Face of Doubt," and it appeared in The New Yorker on June 9, 1986.

On April 14, I sent an overnight letter to David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, pointing out that Kolbert's quote had not been properly attributed, and suggesting that the following Editor's Note be published in a future issue of the magazine:

In "Rough Forecasts," by Elizabeth Kolbert (April 14th), the question asked by Professor F. Sherwood Rowland, "What's the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we're willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?" should have been attributed to his having been quoted in those words by former staff writer Paul Brodeur in an article that appeared in The New Yorker on June 9, 1986.

The wording of this proposed Editor's Note was similar to one giving correct attribution in the same issue of the magazine to a previous article. However, on April 15, I received an e-mail message from Peter Canby, director of The New Yorker's 16-member Checking Department, who explained that Remnick's office had forwarded my letter to him for reply. Canby informed me that, "The problem is the degree to which you are the victim of your own success," and that the "quote is so widely used without attribution that it has effectively escaped its authorship." Canby provided three instances in which Rowland's quote had appeared without attribution, and said that there were many more. He assured me that "Kolbert, Kolbert's editor, and the checker, all looked unsuccessfully for the source of the quote," and declared that, "only if you [Brodeur] put your name next to it does the quote's provenance become apparent."

It seems reasonable to suggest that the three people searching for the source of the quote might have tried looking for Professor Rowland and his famous discovery in the archives of The New Yorker itself -- a magazine that had serialized Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," and been known for decades for its coverage of important environmental hazards. Be that as it may, Canby's claim that the quote by Rowland had "effectively escaped its authorship," seemed absurd to me, so I sent a second overnight letter to Remnick on April 16th, telling him that I considered the claim to be "without foundation," and that "No work escapes its authorship, even if it has already appeared elsewhere without attribution, and especially if it has already appeared word for word in the very magazine that is publishing it without attribution." I went on to point out that the claim that Kolbert, her editor, and the checker had looked unsuccessfully for the source of Rowland's quote raised the question of "how hard any of them may have looked." I also told Remnick that Canby's assertion that only if my name were put next to the quote would the quote's provenance become apparent was "disingenuous, to say the least."

In the next paragraph, I informed Remnick that "if one assumes, as would be sensible, that the quote originated someplace, and thus proceeded to look for its provenance under the Google search-engine heading "F. Sherwood Rowland, Media Coverage," one would discover two citations of my articles about Rowland's work, including one that reads, "Brodeur, Paul (1986) 'Annals of Chemistry: In the Face of Doubt,' The New Yorker, June 9, 1986, pp. 70-87." I also told him that the search-engine heading "Ozone Depletion, Media Coverage," would have turned up additional references to my articles in the magazine about Rowland's discovery and prediction. A search for "F. Sherwood Rowland, Ozone Depletion, Press Coverage" would have yielded several references to me and/or my articles on the first page.

Had they chosen to do so, any of the three people who were supposedly looking for the source of the Rowland quote might have been expected to search next under the heading "F. Sherwood Rowland, The New Yorker." There, halfway down the first page, under the heading "F. Sherwood Rowland, Department of Chemistry," they would have found copies of the first pages of my two articles on Rowland's work -- "Annals of Chemistry: Inert" that appeared in the magazine on April 7, 1975, and "Annals of Chemistry: In the Face of Doubt" that appeared on June 9, 1986. Farther down the page, under the heading "Images for F. Sherwood Rowland, The New Yorker," they would have found a color photograph (since removed) of the cover of the June 9, 1986 issue of the magazine, accompanied by an article from the archives giving the title of the article, describing its contents, and listing me as its author.

A reading of that article would, of course, have revealed the source of the quote that Kolbert, Kolbert's editor, and the checker were said to have looked for without success, and had ended up lifting without attribution.

Toward the end of my letter, I told Remnick I hoped he would conclude from the language in which I had couched my suggested Editor's Note that I had no desire to embarrass Kolbert, whose work I admire, or the editor of her Comment piece, or Peter Canby. However, I also informed him that, "I do not intend to stand idly by while the magazine at which I was a staff writer for nearly forty years fails to give proper attribution to writing of mine that was published in it."

I then reminded Remnick that, "As Steve Buttry, Professor of Journalism at Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, has said: 'Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism.'"

In the last sentence of my letter, I requested that Remnick respond directly to me as to whether he approved of the suggested Editor's Note I had sent him on April 14th.

I have not heard from him since, and the forthcoming April 28th issue of The New Yorker does not contain an Editor's Note giving proper attribution.