Reporter plagiarizes Wikipedia

Wikipedia editors expose journalist's plagiarism

Sleuthing Wikipedia editors have found several cases of apparent plagiarism over the past two years by Tim Ryan, a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. It began with the discovery of an article last month containing language that closely matched a Wikipedia article, and more investigation found earlier articles that seemed to borrow from additional sources without attribution.

In response to these reports, the Star-Bulletin acknowledged the situation by adding corrections or editor's notes to some of the articles. Star-Bulletin Editor Frank Bridgewater took these actions after investigating the incident and also met with the newspaper's publisher, Dennis Francis, about the situation. However, Bridgewater said last week that he considered the issue of whether any action would be taken against Ryan "a confidential personnel matter."

This is not the first time a journalist has used text that originally came from Wikipedia without indicating his or her source. Another case involving the German news magazine Der Spiegel was reported in March (see archived story).

Story prompts investigation

On Thursday, 22 December, the Star-Bulletin published Ryan's review of "Secrets of the Black Box: Aloha Flight 243", a History Channel documentary scheduled to air that evening. The program tells the story of Aloha Flight 243, involving a 1988 incident in which part of the airplane's fuselage tore off at normal flight altitude and caused a flight attendant to be ejected from the plane, along with injuries to 65 passengers and crew, before the plane made an emergency landing.

Wikipedia editor TenOfAllTrades soon pointed out that several paragraphs in Ryan's story were strikingly similar to the text of the Wikipedia article on Aloha Flight 243. This discovery was prompted, he said, because he had recently responded to a question on Wikipedia's science reference desk about airplane doors and ended up reading the article. When he came across Ryan's story via a link from, he recognized that some of it matched the Wikipedia article he had just read.

To address the possibility that Ryan might have written both articles, a check of the Wikipedia article's history showed that two different users wrote portions of the paragraphs in question, along with one person who edited without logging in. These edits were made between January and May 2005. Ryan's article did change the spelling of flight attendant Jane Santo-Tomita's name to Sato-Tomita, as it also appears in other coverage from the newspaper. Presumably the Star-Bulletin, which must have reported on the incident contemporaneously, would get this item right.

On 24 December, after the matter was brought to the editor's attention, the Star-Bulletin ran a correction regarding Ryan's story. Based on the correction, Ryan apparently explained that he got the information from rather than directly from Wikipedia. In any case, the newspaper acknowledged that the story "failed to attribute the information to either source."

Additional cases

With assistance from users Dragons flight and Calton, several other instances of possible plagiarism by Ryan were also identified. As Dragons flight commented, "a writer is never caught for their first act of plagiarism". The next to be discovered was a 7 June 2005 review of the Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV, some of which was traced to an article in the Sacramento Bee by Mark Glover, from 15 April 2005. TenOfAllTrades thought this might have a different explanation, however, such as both reporters relying on the same press release. Meanwhile, a travel article about Australia had language matching several other sites; Calton suggested it may originally have come from a government factsheet.

A more intricate case involved a 17 December 2004 article interviewing cellist Matt Haimovitz in connection with his appearance at a Honolulu arts center. Nearly all of the quotes from Haimovitz matched up verbatim with an interview conducted by Steve Inskeep in 2003 on All Things Considered. This was discovered because the remaining "quotes", if they were not exactly the same as on All Things Considered, corresponded to the text on NPR's website accompanying the interview instead.

The editors tracking down these cases thought the Haimovitz story was the most serious. As summarized by Dragons flight, Ryan "appears to lift material from the NPR story and pass them off as quotes from a personal interview he conducted. That would seem particularly wrong, and hard to explain." Ultimately, an editor's note added to the story stated: "Information for this story was gathered through an interview with Matt Haimovitz, but many questions and answers are similar to those in a National Public Radio interview with Haimovitz." A note acknowledging the Sacramento Bee was also added to the Toyota Highlander review.

According to an NPR spokesperson, the text on the website is written by NPR Online staff, and naturally is based closely on the audio interview. It is not known whether Ryan has ever been affiliated with NPR, but he appears to have written for the Star-Bulletin since at least 1996, based on a search of the newspaper's online archives. A Variety profile says he also reported from Hawaii for Variety and several other publications in that time. The profile adds that Ryan works out of his home and, as a surfer, "only has to glance over his computer monitor to the ocean below".

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This story has been cited in the Hawaii Reporter and on the media blog Regret the Error.

More: Plagiarism Today, Jeremy Wagstaff. --Michael Snow 22:36, 16 January 2006 (UTC)[reply]

And now the Hawaii Reporter reports that Ryan has been fired. Jer ome 00:34, 14 January 2006 (UTC)[reply]

So what?

Isn't the content of Wikipedia free and open? Doesn't the GFDL allow this under Article 2?

You may copy and distribute the Document in any medium, either commercially or noncommercially, provided that this License, the copyright notices, and the license notice saying this License applies to the Document are reproduced in all copies, and that you add no other conditions whatsoever to those of this License. You may not use technical measures to obstruct or control the reading or further copying of the copies you make or distribute. However, you may accept compensation in exchange for copies. If you distribute a large enough number of copies you must also follow the conditions in section 3.

You may also lend copies, under the same conditions stated above, and you may publicly display copies.

--BuddyJesus 16:15, 15 January 2006 (UTC)[reply]

Ummmm, because there was no acknowledgement of Wikipedia authorship and nothing after the provided that clause was followed. Also, if you look at the article you'll note he stole from other non-free sources in addition to Wikipedia. Dragons flight 16:48, 15 January 2006 (UTC)[reply]


I went to the relevant newspaper site and looked at the other articles that allegedly contained plagiarised material. Now while lifting substantial content from other sites without attribution is plagiarism, some of his alleged "plagiarism" involved data sheets from PR companies. Journalists are given these data sheets to use. While cutting-and-pasting would be extremely lazy, bad practice, it can hardly count as plagiarism, since the PR people expect (want) their blurb to be incorporated into articles.

The interview article where he took material from someone else's interview was undoubtedly dodgy, but I am not convinced by all their other claims. I have also seen info on Wikipedia that appears to be cut and paste without attribution from other sites, but generally things like government or company information sites, that probably do not mind the material being reproduced.

--Istara 16:03, 17 January 2006 (GMT+4)

I added a bit about this story on the paper's wikipedia page. Clotten 19:50, 15 January 2006 (UTC)[reply]

Not an isolated case

See Wikipedia talk:Wikipedia as a press source 2005.

Econrad 19:37, 15 January 2006 (UTC)[reply]


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