Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Letter: Posti Didn't Plagiarize

The following letter to the editors of Blog-Lebo comes from reader and frequent commenter David Brown. –Tom

The people who are fomenting the moral panic du jour and condemning Ms. Posti for supposed plagiarism are engaging in a form of deceit that I call context switching. Context switching occurs when someone discusses the morality of an action or truth of a statement in one context and continues discussing it in the same manner while silently changing the context and hoping no one will notice.

Plagiarism is obviously an egregious offense in the contexts of academia and journalism. In those contexts, the reader has an expectation of originality, and is justifiably outraged when that trust turns out to have been misplaced. In business, technical writing, and many other contexts, not so much -- the expectation of originality is much diminished if not entirely absent. In those contexts, there is much to be gained by both the writer and the reader by repeating passages verbatim. The emphasis is on communicating ideas clearly and accurately and not on the writer. In those contexts, gratuitously adding variations to the wording out of a misguided sense of integrity just invites confusion and wastes the reader's time as they parse back and forth to see if the meaning is the same. Ms. Posti's critics are judging her by academic and journalistic standards when those contexts are only at most tangentially related to the context in which she wrote.

I view Ms. Posti's role on the school board as a business position. It's true that this is the business of schooling, but she is not a student, not a teacher, and not a researcher. Therefore, the context in which I read her writings is business communication. In that context, I care not a whit if she copied portions of her communication from other sources. She would not have used them if they did not reflect her views. So, in reading her writing, my expectation is upheld that what I am reading is her opinion. That's all I really care about. I don't view it as academic plagiarism at all.

Ms. Posti's critics also take great pains to point out that in her day job she is in public relations and deals with journalists on a regular basis. So what? First, her day job has nothing to do with our schools or her school blog. Second, I never had an expectation of originality when reading a press release. So, the relation of this issue to journalistic ethics is tenuous at best, and all the people a-hootin' an' a-hollerin' as if this is a direct hit on her integrity merely betray their inability to make subtle but very important distinctions.

Furthermore, on a limited scanning of the sources that were copied, I get the distinct impression that they were created specifically to share the information therein. They seem to have been placed on the web by advocates of certain positions as talking points for the very purpose of furthering those positions. I don't think those organizations would feel victimized at all, but rather gratified that their work is being put to the use they intended.

People would also do well to remember that Ms. Posti's blog is a voluntary action over and above her duties as a school board member. Anything she puts up there is a gift to all of us. It is a positive action for transparency. Yes, sources should have been cited, and yes, some of it was clearly copied en masse, so a "tut tut" is in order:

Tut, tut, Ms. Posti!

But that's all you'll get from me.

I would be willing to bet that Ms. Posti has less free time than anyone I know, and I for one am glad that she got the information out quickly so she could spend more time on all her other duties of a board member, professional, wife, and mother. I don't think she was trying to take credit for authorship. I think she was just trying to do her best to channel some important information she felt we needed to know and try not to have to stay up all night.

David Brown

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Blogger E. T. Gillen said...

As I told Matt Santoni in today's Trib article, Posti knows better. Using the District website's tutorial on plagiarism as a basis, that is exactly what she did. I didn't accuse her. An anonymous source EXPOSED her.
Elaine Gillen

August 25, 2011 6:04 AM  
Blogger Bill Matthews said...

Mrs. Posti’s commentary is thought to be her own and much like Paul Simon’s Kodachrome is often intended to “… give us those nice bright colors … give us the greens of summers … (make us) think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah! …”

The latter is OK, we understand the orientation to which she writes, it is the former that now harvests ridicule.

Paul was right “everything does look worse in black and white.”

August 25, 2011 8:06 AM  
Blogger Tom Moertel said...

First, I don’t think there’s much doubt that Mrs. Posti did plagiarize. Maybe it was unintentional (and that’s probably the most positive light we can shine on it), but plagiarism doesn’t require intent, just negligence.

Second, Mr. Brown’s argument ignores that writers are expected not to mislead their readers. When a writer presents information in such a way that readers will believe it’s the writer’s own work, when in fact it’s not, the readers are being mislead about the reliability of the work and the credibility of the writer. Knowing what to believe and who to trust is important. It matters.

Third, plagiarism is not just condemned in academia and journalism but everywhere. Yes, plagiarism is especially condemned in those professions, but no matter where it occurs it deceives people about things that matter. And people everywhere don’t like being deceived. That’s why the public expects writers to take reasonable care to ensure that this kind of deception does not occur.

When that care is not taken, it’s considered an act of negligence and it’s given a name: plagiarism.

And it sure looks like this name fits what Mrs. Posti did. Intentionally or not, she gave her readers the false impression that she had written things she had not. If that’s not plagiarism, the word means nothing.

August 25, 2011 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Tom ! It totally deflated David Browns gas filled balloon.

Bill Lewis

August 25, 2011 11:10 AM  
Anonymous David Brown said...

I appreciate the opportunity to have my opinion up on the front page this time when I felt it necessary even though I know you disagree with it.

Thanks, Tom.

August 25, 2011 5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found a definition of tut tut, and it fits Ms. Posti perfectly:

Describing a person who is expressing an overall feeling of superiority or pompousness
"My friend just bought a new car. He was all like 'Tut tut, my car is soooo great.'"

Remember her reaction to the Dollar General opening?
David Huston

August 26, 2011 9:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Another is HUBRIS

Bill Lewis

August 26, 2011 12:45 PM  

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