Friday, December 4, 2009

What's Wrong With What Gretchen Morgenson Did? A Lot. Some Next-Day Thoughts From The NYTPicker.

Yesterday, we published two stories about the methods used by Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning NYT business reporter, to produce her new book, "The Capitalist's Bible."

Our reporting revealed that numerous passages in Morgenson's book were virtually identical to sections in a 2004 book, "Encyclopedia of Captitalism," published by Facts on File.

Ordinarily, such wholesale copying would be considered plagiarism, and cause for a public media scandal, especially given Morgenson's prominence in the profession.

In this case, it's not -- but only because of a subtle deception by Morgenson and the publishers, who apparently didn't want readers to know that much of the new book was copied wholesale from the earlier work.

Here's the tick-tock:

In 2004, a company called Golson Media recruited numerous academics from around the country to write entries for a book called "Encyclopedia of Capitalism," to be published under the imprimateur of Facts on File -- but with the copyright held by Golson.

The three-volume set -- which gave individual bylines to all contributors, and included, in many cases, detailed bibliographies to support the research -- was published and sold primarily to libraries.

Writers' agreements gave full rights to all material to Golson, to do with it what it wished.

And that, apparently, gave Golson an idea: what if it re-purposed the encyclopedia as a mass-market book for a new, general interest audience? To do so Golson would need to recruit a famous brand-name writer to put on the cover. The company specializes in this' its website brags of using "Pulitzer Prize-winning authors."

And that's where Gretchen Morgenson -- winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting -- came in.

J. Goeffrey Golson, the company's president and editor, recruited Morgenson to be the editor of his new project -- a "rewrite" of the 2004 book, to be published for a mainstream audience by Harper Business. She came on board, and with the help of Golson staff writers and newly-recruited academics, the new book was born.

In September of 2009, "The Capitalist's Bible" was published, now under the copyright of Harper Business.

Unlike the previous encyclopedia, the new book contains no individual bylines. It has no bibliography or source citations. The only name on the book is that of Gretchen Morgenson, identified on the cover as a "New York Times journalist" and the editor.

But given that the book is more than 300 pages long and that Morgenson has a full-time job at the NYT, it's clearly unlikely that she wrote -- or necessarily even edited -- a significant portion of the book.

The process by which the book came together is explained only in a short acknowledgement in the very back of the volume, more than 300 pages in, which says only that it was "produced using some rewritten text from the Encyclopedia of Capitalism, published by Facts On File for the library reference market."

No mention of Golson.

No mention of individual writers.

No mention of source material.

No mention of the fact that in many, many instances, the material wasn't rewritten at all -- but, rather, copied verbatim from the earlier book.

In her defense of the new book, Morgenson insists that it was Golson's legal right to do whatever it wanted with the original material. It owned all rights.

"The copyright to the Facts On File encyclopedia is held by Golson Books, Ltd., which has permission in writing from Facts On File to use the material in "The Capitalist's Bible," Morgenson told The NYTPicker. "Facts On File does not have, nor did it seek, approval rights for the rewritten material."

Okay, so Morgenson is right: technically, legally, Golson could do whatever it wanted with the words of others.

But is it right to take another person's words and lift them into another volume, without credit or admission?

Is it legitimate to call it "rewritten" when it's copied?

Is it being open and straightforward with readers for Morgenson to bury the explanation of her methods in the back of a 5,490-page book, in a single, incomplete paragraph?

Morgenson is a journalist who, on a daily basis, demands openness and honesty from the corporations and individuals she covers.

If a company attempts to bury its significant disclosures in the back of an S.E.C. filing, Morgenson will call them on it.

If a business tries to justify an action that appears wrong -- like stealing -- by pointing out that it has adhered to the letter of the law, Morgenson will rightly note that dubious distinction.

Yesterday, in response to several followup questions from The NYTPicker about the verbatim lifts of passages -- in which we asked about credit, about her reference to the process as "rewriting," et cetera -- she sent us this four-word email reply:

"The acknowledgement is appropriate," Morgenson wrote us.

Would Morgenson have been satisfied by a one-sentence reply from a company that ignored the essence of her questions?

Would Morgenson have considered the matter over and done with, because the company told her they had a signed document allowing them to commit an act that, on the face of it, appeared to violate some of the industry's most fundamental tenets?

In this case, Morgenson's only defense against a charge of plagiarism is a piece of paper whose existence wasn't even publicly known until yesterday. Even if that document entitled her to copy the words of others into her book -- eliminating only the authors' names from the mix -- it doesn't justify it.

Morgenson owes her readers -- and the writers whose work she has rewritten and copied -- a fuller explanation of what happened than the incomplete and misleading acknowledgement buried in the back of her book.

CORRECTION: The commenter who pointed this out is right -- "The Capitalist's Bible" is 320 pages, not 5,490 pages. We've corrected the number in our post. The NYTPicker downloaded the book to our Kindle for iPhone app, which doesn't include page numbers and inaccurately gave that as the book's page count.

EARLIER: Portions Of Gretchen Morgenson's New, "Rewritten" Version Of 2004 Book Were Copied Verbatim, Without Credit.

EARLIER: Two-Thirds Of New Book Edited By Pulitzer Prize-Winning NYT Reporter Gretchen Morgenson Rewritten From Someone Else's 2004 Book.


Roberto said...

"Morgenson owes her readers -- and the writers whose work she has rewritten and copied -- a fuller explanation of what happened than the incomplete and misleading acknowledgement buried in the back of her book."

Of course, it's entirely up to her what she feels she "owes her readers". She very probably felt/feels she owed it to her mortgage company to make her house payments in a timely manner, took the money and ran.

She may also feel that the ethical standards we/readers/she might apply to "real journalism" don't apply (or can be massaged) to research tomes repurposed for the mass market.

But it's almost certain she doesn't give a shit what nytpicker or the rest of us think.

wjdecker said...

Most academics, even when assigning copyright to a publisher, expect attribution credit to be preserved. Most readers, when buying a book listing one author, expect that author to have written the work. Pointing to intermediate, lawyer-crafted, fine-print-filled agreements don't really change those basic expectations. She might have even more trouble in Europe, where - if memory serves me correctly - copyright rights include attribution credit as part of the "moral rights" of a creative work.

Anonymous said...

Dear NytPicker,

After reading your blog, I looked up The Capitalist's Bible on Amazon.

"Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (September 1, 2009)"

Why do you keep posting that it's a 5,490-page book?

As for the content, do you not know the difference between being the Editor of a book and the Author of a book?

Tom said...

This type of irresponsible reporting borders upon libel.

This blog's shoddy research didn't at first reveal that there was no legal basis for plagiarism, and now they are clearly backtracking -trying to make a story where there is clearly none.

What Morgenson did is commonplace in publishing. These insipid attacks are unjustified, dangerous and misleading.

Shame on you!


Thanks for pointing out our mistake in the length of "The Capitalist's Bible," which resulted from a misleading page count in the Kindle for iPhone app. We've corrected the post.


In response to "Tom" --

None of our three posts on Morgenson has accused her of plagiarism.

Anonymous said...

I don’t see your point here. I have written a lot of contracts for my own work. I have had my photos published in encyclopedias. The contract would stipulate whether or not I wanted a photo credit listing. A contract for the copyrights to a work in a book would include a credit listing clause or a clause to omit any credit. An owner or author makes the deal for cash and makes the terms of the deal. A no credit clause may well be in place here. Did you think of this?

If you are writing an editorial or a new story, then fact checking is a cool concept. Did you research the contract that you are alluding to?

Does a publisher of a Bible credit other prior publishers or editors or authors? This sort of thing is done all of the time. It’s nothing new under the Sun.

An editor is very probably employed by a party to oversee and produce a work. The party owns the work. An employee does their work the way that the boss says to do it. An editor does not claim authorship or ownership. There is a difference. As a writer yourself, I’m sure that you realize that an editor has an entirely different job function than an author.

I don’t see your point here in casting aspersions on this Gretchen person. Methinks thou doeth protest too much. The “methods used” are more likely the providence of the business, not the editor. See below.

Your statement, “to produce her new book, ‘The Capitalist's Bible’,” is incorrect on the face of it, because the book is not “hers.” Apparently, she was a contracted editor.

Lifting your quote: “Yesterday, we published two stories about the methods used by Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning NYT business reporter, to produce her new book, "The Capitalist's Bible."”

Sincerely, Mr. Libel

Anonymous said...

You know what's weird? The way so many people come to this site and read it, and then they fill up the comments section with attacks on it. Maybe they don't get everything right every time, but it's a good website. Ignore the haters, NytPicker. You're needed.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to point out two tid bits from the Amazon website.

1) The site identifies Morgenson with the word author between parentheses.

2) Later in the product description, it says, "Edited by New York Times business journalist Gretchen Morgenson, ..."

(1) is the kind of error made by web programmers who devote one column of their database to the author. Then they assume that every name in there is really an author.

(2) is almost certainly written by somebody at the publishing house.

Much of the packaging of these books is done by the publishing house. I think it's wrong to strip away the bylines from the original authors, but that may be the fault of the publishing house.

Anonymous said...

Your right. Morgenson probably isn't responsible for taking the writers names off.She also probably didn't know that so much of the book was copied. But that doesn[t explain why she just says "the acknowledgement is appropriate."Why doesn't she admit the mistake? Sounds like she's being advised by lawyers so they don't get sued.

Jim McCarthy said...

Keep up the great work, NYTpicker. You've got 'em on the run. So amazing how they know they can't ignore you -- and yet still feel like they can give you the high hat treatment. Knock it off the old grey gal's head and put a heel through it.

Anonymous said...

This is bullshit.

Gretchen did nothing wrong here, and you know it. Tom is absolutely right: You thought you had something, which turned out to be next to nothing, and now you can't back off it.

And as for not accusing her of plagiarism, it's just is shitty for you to imply it strongly as you do above.

Gretchen owes you nothing. She owes readers nothing except to continue the incredible work she does.

Shame on you. Maybe the nytpicker needs a nytpicker.

Anonymous said...

"Gretchen did nothing wrong." Really, one of my favorite parts of NYTPicker is reading all the anonymous attacks on this site by people who are obviously New York Times reporters defending their friends. They'd be doing "Gretchen" more of a favor if they stopped slinging obscenities around and accusing NYTPicker of libel.

Anonymous said...

This site is one big anonymous attack, so it's amusing to see someone complain about anonymous attacks against NYTPicker.

Anonymous said...

I love it when anomymous commenters attack this website for being anonymous. It makes me want to vent, anonymously.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous but I disagree with Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

a book about capitalism produced by the cornerstone method of capitalism: making money out of the labours of others. it could not be more appropriate.

christmas is the time of giving, and Morgenson and Golson have given each other lovely lolly.

and those anonymous academics? they got what they wanted the first time around, plus their words if not their names got the audience they craved, so nothing to complain about :)

....academic experts on capitalism... didn't George Bernard Shaw mention something about that? = those who can, do; those who can't, write scholarly articles about it; and those who can't even do that, complain about other people complaing about, well, anything, really.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out you've still got one reference in this post to the 5,000+-page book.