Harvard undergrad sacked for pulling a Dersh

November 1, 2006

In News

Editor’s note: See What if a Harvard student did this? for Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz’s failure to acknowledge his reliance on second sources.

By ANTON S. TROIANOVSKI, Crimson Staff Writer

The Crimson last night retracted an Oct. 16 column published on its editorial page after determining that the writer had failed to attribute the source of several quotations in her piece, which appear to have been lifted from a blog and an online magazine.

In an editors’ note posted on its website last night, The Crimson also said it was discontinuing the biweekly series “On Our Language,” by Victoria B. Ilyinsky ’07. Her Oct. 16 piece on the usage of the word “literally” contained quotations from Louisa May Alcott and F. Scott Fitzgerald that were cited in a Nov. 1, 2005, article entitled, “The Word We Love to Hate.

In addition, Ilyinsky’s Oct. 16 column, “This Word Is Killing Me, Literally,” used a quotation from a televised football game that also appeared in a blog linked from the Slate article. The editors’ note said that Ilyinsky’s piece “implies that the author heard the commentary herself. In fact, she learned of the account by reading about it on the web log, ‘Literally, A Web Log.’

It was the first time since 2001 that The Crimson has formally retracted an opinion column, according to its archives. And Crimson President William C. Marra ’07 said that the newspaper would review Ilyinsky’s past columns.

Julia Turner, Slate’s senior online editor, wrote in an e-mail that the magazine was not planning to take any action in response to Ilyinsky’s column.

The Slate piece was authored by Jesse Sheidlower, the North American editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary. In an e-mail last night, Sheidlower said he had learned about the matter on the blog IvyGate, which first covered the story on Oct. 24—a day after The Crimson first published a two-sentence note on its editorial page alerting readers to some of the similarities.

The thrust of Ilyinsky’s piece, which called for more moderate use of “literally,” was different from the point of the Slate article, which deconstructed criticism of the word’s usage. But what appeared to be a repeated failure to cite sources led Marra and the editorial chairs to retract the column.

It was deleted from The Crimson’s website early this morning.

The Crimson was first alerted to the similarities between the Alcott and Fitzgerald quotations in an Oct. 16 e-mail from a longtime reader, according to a copy of the correspondence obtained by this reporter. The similarities between Ilyinsky’s column and the blog were first identified by a Crimson news reporter this past Tuesday.

The Ilyinsky case has been handled by Marra and the editorial board, and the news staff was not included in the decision-making process.

The president and editorial board members did not see this article before publication.

Ilyinsky, who declined to comment for this article, has written eight opinion pieces for The Crimson since last October.

A press critic and an English professor said that Ilyinsky’s apparent transgressions fell short of plagiarism.

“There’s nothing wrong with picking up good examples someone else has used,” Professor of English Gordon Teskey wrote in an e-mail. “Should the writer painstakingly seek out different examples? Would these examples be better? As a writer, I would not want to be credited by someone just for my examples. I’d rather they just took the examples.”

Craig Silverman, a freelance writer and press critic who runs the popular site, said in a phone interview last night that Ilyinsky’s failures of attribution were serious, but did not constitute plagiarism.

“It’s very clear that this Slate article had a huge effect on her writing of this piece,” Silverman said, after being e-mailed the similarities between Ilyinsky’s column, the Slate article, and the blog.

“Whether it was what inspired her to write it is tough to know or not—in a technical sense it’s not actual plagiarism, but there is certainly an element of misrepresentation and perhaps a theft of idea or concept,” Silverman said.

The “Writing With Sources” guide published by Harvard’s Expository Writing Program states in its section on plagiarism that “your citation must accurately reflect your process.” The guide instructs students to cite the document where they found information or quotations—even if that document in turn cites a separate source. To students who disobey this rule, the guide warns, “you are misleading your reader and possibly embarrassing yourself.

Crimson Editorial Chairs Michael B. Broukhim ’07 and Matthew S. Meisel ’07 initially published a brief editors’ note on Monday, which said that Ilyinsky’s column should have cited Slate as a source for its quotations from “The Great Gatsby” and “Little Women.” But during the week, more questions about the column surfaced—in particular, allegations that Ilyinsky had not actually watched the football game from which she quoted—leading to the second editors’ note yesterday and the retraction.

Word of the similarities between Ilyinsky’s article and the Slate piece was quickly picked up by Harvard-watching bloggers, who immediately recalled Kaavya Viswanathan ’08. The author’s debut novel was pulled from bookshelves last year after The Crimson found similarities between Viswanathan’s novel and several other books.

“After pummeling Kaavya Viswanathan last year for plagiarism, the Crimson doesn’t want to be seen protecting someone even remotely tainted by the p-word, even if it’s a small infraction,” the anonymously written IvyGate said early this morning.

Ivy Gate cached Ilyinsky’s column after the Boston Globe reported last night that The Crimson would delete the column from its website.

The charges against Viswanathan­—that she lifted lines from other authors and passed them off as her own—differ from the allegations against Ilyinsky, who marked the passages as quotations but appears not to have credited the sources where she found them.

Her Oct. 16 column, Ilyinsky wrote that the quote “the land literally flowed with milk and honey,” which she cites twice, “comes straight from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel ‘Little Women.'”

“And,” she went on, “who doesn’t remember Fitzgerald’s description of Jay Gatsby: ‘He literally glowed?’ But neither was the town of Plumfield overrun with food-stuffs nor our favorite social climber actually luminescent.”

The Slate article said: “The ground was not especially sticky in Little Women when Louisa May Alcott wrote that ‘the land literally flowed with milk and honey,’ nor was Tom Sawyer turning somersaults on piles of money when Twain described him as ‘literally rolling in wealth,’ nor was Jay Gatsby shining when Fitzgerald wrote that ‘he literally glowed’ […].”

Ilyinsky’s column also described an announcer’s use of the word “literally” during a televised football game—a quotation that also made it into a blog, linked from the Slate article, that tracks the use and misuse of the word.

A Sept. 18 entry on the blog,, said: “I was watching the NFL network yesterday (9/17) and the announcer (unfortunately, I don’t know his name), in talking about the Giants comeback victory over the Eagles, mentioned that the Giants had ‘literally put a bullet in the heads of the Eagles’. Well, no wonder they won!”

Ilyinsky wrote: “And when an NFL sportscaster said last month, talking about the Giants’ comeback victory over the Eagles, that the winners ‘had literally put a bullet’ in coach Andy Reid’s head, I had a feeling that there wasn’t much shooting going on. He did, however, manage to catch my attention. Considering I thought the Eagles were merely a 1970s rock band, it’s clear that the sportscaster’s sensationalism actually worked.”

In a fourth similarity pointed out by the editors’ note, Ilyinsky’s piece and the Slate article both contain a paragraph of “Janus words”—words that can have opposite usages.

“Both articles discuss Janus words, and provide three different examples of them. While the examples are different in each column, their presentation is very similar,” the note said.

Silverman of said that failures of attribution, such as citing quotations but not referencing where they were found, were relatively common in the mainstream media.

“I would say that unfortunately in journalism it’s quite frequent that people will cite something and not give the proper attribution,” he said. “It happens a lot these days when mainstream media takes something from a blog.”

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at