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November 2, 2006

Harvard Cartoonist Plagiarism Update

The story of a Harvard Crimson cartoonist accused of copying a number of jokes and stagings from published editorial cartoons for her ongoing cartoon column has been pretty ill-served by blog-style Internet coverage, as the story has developed over the stretch of several days, in drips and drabs, and a lot of the reporting has become news because it represents "reaction" and "public opinion" on the matter.

But let's muddle through. Here's an editorial from the paper making explicit what the cartoonist faces, including the possibility of re-applying for the gig. This has been seen by some as a retraction of the paper's original position, but the original decision was so muddily expressed I wouldn't hold them to it.

The Harvard Crimson was actually able to get the cartoonist on the record (she was MIA until this morning as if she were a deposed Latin American head of state), and the explanation given by the cartoonist states that only one cartoon was copied. I guess that means all the other coincidences of staging and joke-making were just that -- although only one is mentioned by name, so maybe it's only the two cartoons talked about in any sense. It's hard to tell how people negotiate these kind of Q&A's.

I think this story has become a semi-big deal only in that it's a slow news week, cartoonists love to talk about themselves, cartoonists are naturally contrary, and the situation highlights a genuine split in attitudes towards such situations, as even some professional cartoonists think the proof is less than compelling, the overall overlap is no big deal, and that a cartoonist working with similar imagery and jokes as a bunch of pros is a failure of the editorial culture as much as that of the cartoonist.

Like I've said in the past, I think a lot of accusations of copying in comics are achingly dumb, particularly strip cartoonists where you have 100-plus features working in humor and gags are bound to be repeated. However, similarities in a high percentage of more timely jokes, similarities that extend to staging, should be taken a bit more seriously, and I think that action is warranted. I know that when I worked for a newspaper 20 years ago as a student if my response for publication had been that I only openly plaigirized the one writer, but the others it just happened, I would not have been allowed to write for that paper ever again, and probably would have been fired. And nothing mean is meant by that; I likely would have exchanged my own young-person foul-ups for this one in less than a minute. Hopefully, all the needed lessons have been learned.
posted 11:37 pm PST | Permalink

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