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Using the Words of Others

If there’s one thing I’ve learned working on this space for almost three (!) years, is that it is very important to attribute things. If I refer to a news event or a video or even a piece of music, I’ll hyperlink to a source. If I read about something in another’s blog or Facebook page, I make a point of mentioning the person’s name. And if I use someone else’s language, I put that language in quotes. It’s only fair, reasonable and, if I may use the word in the context of this hobby space, professional. I care about the words I publish, and I care to do right by them, and by those whose ideas I borrow or lean on.

Why am I going on about this? Because this morning, I read the “November Health Tips” (or, as headlined on the website, “Novermber”) posted on the Trenton City website, and I was struck by a number of things. First, I was happy to see that something had been posted to this site that wasn’t another screed by the Current Occupant of the Mayor’s Office against one or another of his real or imagined enemies. That’s always nice to see. That the City sees fit to include some informational items of general interest was also something I found pleasant.

But as I actually read the article, written by Gwendolyn Carter, Nursing Supervisor in the City’s Department of Health, who included her professional qualifications (”MSN, RN,” presumably a Master’s of Science in Nursing, and a Registered Nurse), I noticed a few other things.

This piece wasn’t reviewed closely, if at all, to start. The introductory  paragraphs are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, which are unfortunately all too common on the City of Trenton website.  But those errors drop off significantly in the heart of the article, and the quality of the writing improves. Improves so dramatically, that I wondered if the rest of this piece was written by the same person who wrote the introduction.

As it turns out, I have my doubts. In the first section, on Diabetes, I read the following language: “When you eat food, the body breaks down all of the sugars and starches into glucose, which is the basic fuel for the cells in the body. Insulin takes the sugar from the blood into the cells. When glucose builds up in the blood instead of going into cells, it can lead to diabetes complications.”

I find that exact same language on this webpage.

Similarly, I read this passage in Ms. Carter’s piece: “Diabetes is a unique condition for women. When compared with men, women have a 50 % greater risk of diabetic coma, a condition brought on by poorly controlled diabetes and lack of insulin. Women with diabetes have heart disease rates similar to men, but more women with diabetes die from a first heart attack than do men with diabetes.”

I find that exact same language in the first paragraph of this page.

In the next section, on Alzheimer’s Disease, one reads “AD is a slow disease, the course the disease takes and how fast changes occur vary from person to person. On average, AD patients live from 8 to 10 years after they are diagnosed, though some people may live with AD for as many as 20 years. AD is a progressive disease, but its course can vary from 5 to 20 years.”

Yes, I found the exact same language on another site, here.

I could go on, but I won’t. The extensive use of identical language – without quotation, citation or attribution – in a piece written over one’s own name, goes by another name in professional and academic circles. Plagiarism.

Do I know that the language I found on other sites – found by the way, in seconds by Google-ing random strings of words – were original to those sites themselves, or were they in turn lifted from other documents? No, I don’t. But I am not concerned with them. Today I am interested solely in what I read on the official Trenton city website.

I don’t mean to beat up on Ms. Carter, by any means. She is, after all, attempting to communicate some valuable medical information to Trenton’s residents, many of whom may be afflicted with these conditions she discusses. However, I am surprised to see someone who lists a Master’s Degree as one of her credentials engage in an obvious cut-and-paste job, using the words of others and signing her own name to them.

But, of course, Ms. Carter is not alone in this practice, in the City of Trenton. We’ve seen many instances of this from many others in the City, from a member of Council who cuts-and-pastes quotations from other sources in her e-mails and passes them along as her own thoughts; to the Current Occupant who cut-and-pasted his way from other cities’ plans to his “Comprehensive Crime Initiative” earlier this year.

What really bothers me about this practice in Trenton, and how widespread and casual it is, is how it reveals in yet one more way how intellectually bankrupt, how un-qualified and how, well, just damned sloppy  the people who are running our government are. They are fundamentally so inexperienced, incapable and unskilled at their own jobs that they must rely on the words and ideas of others, since they have none of their own.

In the scale of things, when thinking about all that’s been going on in this town for the last two years and longer, this casual reliance on plagiarism isn’t anything newsworthy or earthshaking on its own. It just strikes me as just another sorry and desperate thing about this town, which used to make so many things of great creativity and originality, and send them to the far corners of the globe.

Now we can’t even express our own ideas or write our own words without importing them – or even acknowledging them – from elsewhere.

How sad.

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