The Cyber War on Plagiarism 

Deseret News uses high-tech software to vet freelance submissions


If dire predictions about print media—and the world at large—hold true, robots will soon run riot over the ravaged landscape, killing and replacing newspaper reporters and editors and other inferior species of a bygone era.

This rise-of-the-machines scenario is already taking shape here in Utah, though in a decidedly less apocalyptic way. The Deseret News is now supplementing the work of its editors through the services of anti-plagiarism software called PlagScan, which can cross-check any article against a vast database to make sure the author isn’t plagiarizing or getting sloppy with attributing source material.

While the service may have been originally designed for stopping students from copying the guts of their term papers from Wikipedia, it could now be a valuable tool for the Deseret News, which as recently as summer 2013 apologized for publishing six columns containing plagiarized material.

PlagScan boasts a fancy two-step computer linguistics algorithm for checking submissions, incorporating billions of documents for cross-checking with an index that is updated daily, according to the company’s website. And though it’s not a replacement for a flesh & blood copy editor, it may be the future of how news organizations most effectively screen freelance contributions to make sure the untested contributor isn’t a practitioner of copy & paste “journalism.”

Burke Olsen, web editor for the Deseret News, says the paper’s decision to use PlagScan isn’t a cure-all but is a worthwhile experiment.

“We’ve tested a few different solutions in an effort to help our editors evaluate content,” Olsen writes via e-mail. “PlagScan is the best solution we’ve found so far for a newsroom setting. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s another way we’re using technology to innovate and improve.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-owned Deseret News is in a unique position to test the viability for anti-plagiarism software given the very dramatic changes the paper has undergone since August 2010, when 43 percent of its staff was laid off and the paper underwent a dramatic restructuring.

A new component of the paper’s reorganization was to leverage more than 1,000 unpaid or low-paid freelance contributors through a program called Deseret Connect. Contributors to Deseret Connect earn payments on their submissions based on clicks and views of their story but, for the most part, the major incentive for contribution is increased exposure for the author. The Deseret News would not comment on how many contributors they currently have.

Using so many freelancers hasn’t always worked well for the Deseret News. In 2011, former West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder revealed that he had assumed the name of Richard Burwash to write positive stories about his city.* 

In 2013, the media-watchdog organization iMediaEthics compared a July 31, 2013, column written by Richard and Linda Eyre to a New York Times piece and found that “the bulk of the article is either verbatim from the Times without giving credit and quotes, or a slightly rewritten version.”

The Deseret News investigated the Eyres’ other works and found five further columns with attribution problems. The Eyres, who regularly contribute columns to the paper on family-related topics and do so without compensation, were suspended from contributing to the paper for one month.

In October 2013, the D-News faced more challenges when it was discovered that a summer intern at the paper had written 40 stories with sloppy attribution.

Kelly McBride, the executive vice president for academic programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, sees the use of anti-plagiarism software as a smart move for news organizations that rely on freelancers and other non-staff contributors.

“I think it makes sense that if you are going to be using a lot of outsider material that you would need an effective way to check for plagiarism,” McBride says. “I don’t feel like you need to hire a copy editor just to check for plagiarism, so that feels like a legitimate use for technology.”

Edward Pease, a retired journalism professor who taught at Utah State University, notes via e-mail that while “technology cannot replace good old-fashioned copy editors … academics have used online resources for years to catch plagiarism.” Though technology can’t do everything, he says, spotting plagiarized copy seems like a logical task to entrust to the machines.

Twitter: @EricSPeterson

*This line was clarified to note who disclosed the identity of  "Richard Burwash"

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Eric S. Peterson

Eric S. Peterson

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