Her critics at the Lebo Citizens blog, which first reported the alleged plagiarism, sure think so. But others, such as David Brown, who wrote to Blog-Lebo about the issue, think the accusations boil down to deceitful “context switching” to make a hard-working volunteer look bad. Mrs. Posti, herself, explained it as an “oversight” where she “had neglected to cite sources” a few times. Which brings us to an important observation.
Whether you believe Mrs. Posti did anything wrong is going to depend not only on the evidence but also on what you already believe about Mrs. Posti. Her strongest supporters, for example, are unlikely to conclude that she did anything wrong, regardless of the evidence. Her most-vocal detractors, in contrast, probably don’t need more than a change in the wind to condemn her and, as always, ask for her resignation – loudly.
That’s why, in situations like these, if you want to understand what happened, you can’t go by what people tell you. You have to look at the evidence yourself.
So that’s what I did.
Looking at the evidence
Is there evidence of plagiarism?
First, let’s be clear about what plagiarism is. It’s the act of presenting someone else’s work in a way that gives people the false impression that it’s your own. Even if you have permission to use the work, and even if you don’t mean to give anybody the false impression that it’s yours, you can still plagiarize by not taking the expected care not to plagiarize. It’s like speeding: you can do it willfully or just by not paying enough attention; both ways will earn you a ticket.
To look for evidence of plagiarism, I examined the articles on Mrs. Posti’s blog, looking for text that matched other documents on the Internet. Then I reviewed the matches and kept only those that showed substantial, unexplained duplication.
Here’s what I found: Blog-Lebo analysis of suspected plagiarism, August 2011.
First, the findings make it hard to believe that Mrs. Posti just forgot to cite a few sources. My search found not three cases of apparent plagiarism, as originally reported on the Lebo Citizens blog, but eleven. Second, in some cases, the duplicated material seems to have been edited in ways that would reinforce a reader’s impression that the work was Mrs. Posti’s own.
So, looking at the evidence, it’s hard to believe that there’s nothing wrong here.
Does it matter?
I asked a number of people that question. Their answers ranged from, “It happens so often it’s not worth worrying about” to “I have a serious problem with this.”
My take is that it is a problem. If we want our children to believe that plagiarism is worth avoiding – and we do try to teach them that in Mt. Lebanon – we can’t expect them to believe us if our actions demonstrate that we don’t believe it ourselves. When someone plagiarizes, and especially when students see that person as a respected authority, how that person handles it – and how we handle it – matter.
In this case, Mrs. Posti handled it by effectively denying it. On her blog post about the subject, “Corrections,” she explains it as an “oversight”:
Recently, a resident accused me of plagiarism as the result of information she received and published from an anonymous source. The anonymous source found three of my 435 blog posts where I had neglected to cite original sources that I had pulled information from. I apologize for that oversight and have made corrections to those posts.I have a hard time squaring this explanation with the evidence. If it happened once or twice, I could believe the oversight explanation. But more than ten times? That’s not an oversight.
And now, in anticipation of those people who will say I’m out to get Mrs. Posti or that this is mere political mean-spiritedness, I have only this to say: Before you come after me, look at the evidence, and tell me there’s not a problem here. Because, once you understand that there is a problem here, you can understand why it can’t be ignored.
And one more thing: I have nothing against Mrs. Posti. I think she’s trying to serve her community in difficult times – and under a lot of scrutiny. On the plagiarism thing, it looks like she made a mistake in judgment and compounded it with another. We all make mistakes.
But judgment matters. And so does plagiarism.
So I do hope that Mrs. Posti will take care of it, herself. Because, if she doesn’t, I don’t think the rest of the school board will be able to let it pass. Not anymore.