Blog by John Miller

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Plagiarize THIS!

The Anchor Weekly calls itself an "alternative" newspaper, published and distributed for free in the suburban Chestermere area of Calgary. Its motto is "credible news east of the city." More ironically, its website claims that "to reach out to unique people, you need a unique newspaper."

For its 10,000 or so readers, the newspaper may or may not be "unique," but its owner, publisher and editor, Steve Jeffrey, certainly is.

Thanks to a curious American humour columnist, and the prestigious Poynter Institute, Jeffrey has been unmasked as not only a plagiarist but a serial plagiarist.

Forty-one of the Sittin' in the Lighthouse columns he published under his byline the past year were almost identical to those written by 14 other writers across North America. He simply changed a few lines to eliminate references to other places, slapped his byline on someone else's work, and ran it under his photograph as if it was his own.

Confronted by an investigator from the Poynter Institute, a leading academy for journalism ethics based in Florida, Jeffrey denied "plagiarizing anyone," although he had conflicting explanations about the similarities. The columns in question were about human interest topics and humour, although Jeffrey claimed Sittin' in the Lighthouse was actually about local politics (it's not). Asked if the columns that ran under his name weren't his, he replied: "I would say yes because I don't like humour." Later, in an email to the Calgary Herald, Jeffrey claimed "“I really don’t have any way to defend myself. I did use articles for inspiration, but thought that I had changed the content enough to comply.”

Guilty as hell, I say.

According to one report, Jeffrey has apparently resigned from his positions at the paper, although it's unclear what that means since he happens to own it. He hasn't said whether he will continue writing his now-discredited column.

The evidence against him is indisputable. It was gathered by George Waters, a humour columnist and blogger whose work appears in various California publications. He explains here why he decided to randomly Google phrases he had written to see if anyone was using them for publication. Bingo.  One of his columns, titled "Sick of standardized testing? Bubble THIS in," originally posted in 2008, turned up under Jeffrey's name in the Anchor Weekly on May 19, 2011. 

That column copies many sentences, word for word, from Waters including this one: "My kids, before their schooling is done and they begin their inevitable careers as underpaid but highly esteemed bloggers, will have endured, at a minimum, the STAR test, CAT/6, SAT, CAHSEE, and quite possibly the TACHS, COOP, SSAT, ISEE, SHSAT, the FAB 4 and the Dave Clark 5."

Now just think about that for a second. Why would anyone be so stupid, if they did decide to steal another person's humour writing, as to leave in references that would allow any reader to discover his fraud? If Jeffrey actually does have kids, and if they are Albertans, they certainly wouldn't ever have to take a CAHSEE test, which is an acronym for the California High School Exit Exam.

This does not say much about the intellectual prowess or critical thinking skills of the Anchor Weekly's readers, now does it? At least no one seemed to notice that Jeffrey never seemed to be as funny in person as he was in print.

What's remarkable about Waters is that he kept digging and Googled for references to a whole year of Jeffrey's columns. Of the 52 of them, 41 were fakes, simply copied from 14 different writers as far afield as Newfoundland. Actually 42 of them were fakes, since Jeffrey -- no doubt too busy to search for something else to lift -- simply reprinted one column that he'd stolen a few weeks later.

Little is known for sure about Jeffrey, except that he has been president of the Strathmore and District Chamber of Commerce since 2011. He appears to have had no journalism training or experience. In his LinkedIn bio, he lists himself as a board member with the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association but his name does not appear on the AWNA website as either a present or past board member.

Jeffery declined to answer my questions when I emailed him, saying he was travelling. Officials of the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association, which the Anchor Weekly belongs to, seem to be running for cover too. The St. John's Telegram in Newfoundland asked the president of the association's board of directors, Ossie Sheddy, for comment because three of the writers Jeffrey was found to have copied wrote for that paper. Sheddy wouldn’t say if the association is investigating the matter, and asked not to be quoted.

“I don’t give quotes for fear of being misquoted,” he said. When pressed by The Telegram about why the president of a newspaper association wouldn’t say if it plans to investigate plagiarism — and whether his refusal to be interviewed suggests a lack of confidence in newspaper reporting — Sheddy, the editor and publisher of the Drumheller Mail, said, “I can only say I have confidence in my newspaper reporting, not about anybody else’s.”

The Alberta Press Council, however, admitted it had received a complaint from one of the U.S. writers Jeffrey is accused of plagiarizing. It is still deciding what to do about it.

I'd like to give that sleuth George Waters the last words.

"If Steve Jeffrey had an employer, he would have been sent on his way already with a cardboard box full of family photos off his desk. But Jeffrey runs the paper. Best I can tell, he has no board of directors or a boss. A person of conscience, caught in so clear a violation of journalistic ethics, would resign.

"If you were an editor and you were caught plagiarizing other writers, would you resign? Give me a number. Would you only resign if you were caught five times? Twenty? O.K., 40. Let's go 40. How about then? Give us a number, Mr. Jeffrey. Show us that conscience."

I'm afraid it's not another great moment in Canadian journalism, folks.