Thursday, October 11, 2007

NRC: De Pers inspired by NYT _ or, is plagiarism ethical?

Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad has an entertaining story today.

Their reporters noticed that another Dutch newspaper, "De Pers," has been drawing heavily on the New York Times's column, "The Ethicist" for its own weekly column, "Questions of Conscience."

So last Saturday, the Dutch writer, Alexander von Schmid, answered a question about a hypothetical (?) man who cheated on his wife because she had refused to have sex with him.

It was more or less a direct translation of a question that the NYT's Randy Cohen answered for a reader back in May 2007.

"Recently my wife found out and went ballistic. If she can casually renounce sex, can’t I seek it elsewhere?”
"Toen mijn vrouw erachter kwam, werd ze woedend. Als zij zomaar stopt met seks, waarom mag ik dan niet bij iemand anders seks hebben?”

NRC found that 7 out of 8 of Von Schmid's columns so far have addressed topics identical to those raised earlier by Cohen.

Confronted, De Pers decided to brazen it out.

"I don't think this is plagiarism," editor in chief Jan-Jaap Heij told the NRC. "We're going to keep doing it."

Cohen: "This is plagiarism, absolutely. (Von Schmid) is deceiving his readers. They should know where the questions are coming from."

Cohen's questioners are named, or made anonymous if necessary, but then he gives a general description of who they are and where they come from. So the sex question came from a man who had been married 30 years, and lived in Massechusetts.

Von Schmid: "I only address general ethical questions. You don't need to say your source for that. I don't try to pretend my questions of conscience are being sent in by readers."

Cohen: "The cheating ethicist. This is really fantastic."


Of course, it goes without saying that I'm taking the idea for this post squarely over from NRC. I give them full credit.

Von Schmid does answer his questions differently than Cohen does.

For instance, they both answer the workplace question of whether a male colleague using a camera beneath the table during a meeting to take pictures up the skirt of a female employee should be reported to the boss.

Cohen says yes, that's sexual harassment.

Von Schmid says no, because there's no way the photo could be linked to the female employee and thereby cause her embarrassment.

Hmmm. Either Dutch values really are quite different from American ones, or I'm not sure that Von Schmid is the best person to be writing an ethics column.


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