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WCU student paper accused of plagiarism

Though The Sylva Herald and the Western Carolinian are still at odds about whether plagiarism occurred this summer, The Smoky Mountain News conducted its own investigation into the claims that led university officials to open the inquiry that temporarily closed the paper.

The allegations center around three articles, printed in the June 18 and July 2 editions of the Western Carolinian, that are strikingly similar to stories already published in the Sylva Herald.

Entire segments of stories from The Sylva Herald appeared verbatim in the student paper.

Lynn Hotaling, editor at The Sylva Herald, said the paper’s goal was merely to put an end to the alleged plagiarism. They directed their complaint to the Western Carolinian in an e-mail from the publisher, Steve Gray.

That e-mail, to Katherine Smith, faculty advisor to the student paper, was obtained by The Smoky Mountain News through an N.C. Public Records Law request.

“The Western Carolinian is lifting verbatim whole sections of articles published by The Sylva Herald,” Gray wrote. “I’m sure you are aware of the consequences of plagiarism and I must insist that your staff cease these actions immediately.”

Gray also wanted a clarification, citing The Sylva Herald as the source for all three articles.

“About three weeks later we got an e-mail back that said that she had looked into it and it wasn’t plagiarism,” said Hotaling.

But Hotaling and her reporters didn’t agree. Hotaling pointed out several instances where the Western Carolinian and The Sylva Herald matched word-for-word.

University officials and Western Carolinian staff were reluctant to discuss the specifics of certain stories, citing student privacy concerns. The Smoky Mountain News searched archived versions of both papers to compare the articles.

• In a July 2 Western Carolinian story, written by then-news editor over the legal travails between Jackson County and Duke Energy, 12 of the story’s 18 sentences are either identical or one word away from identical to an article printed in The Herald a week earlier. The Sylva Herald article included a misspelling that was duplicated in the Western Carolinian.

Caudell asserts that this story was compiled from prior knowledge of the long-standing issue and press releases in general circulation.

“The story was ongoing for many years and we both published stories on that,” said Caudell. “We both received press releases from the same outlets, so there is some general information that’s out there.”

Hotaling, however, said that she compiled much of the information in the story solely from her memory, and certain figures that appeared in both papers were generated by the county’s finance manager specifically at The Herald’s request.

• Another questionable article was on the June drowning of WCU graduate Allen Brisson, which appeared in the Sylva Herald on June 10 and the Western Carolinian on June 18. The school’s version included original material about the drowning victim based on stories from friends and other students, but eight sentences in the student paper are a perfect match to the story in The Herald, mostly concerning the facts of the drowning and rescue operation.

• In another July 2 article on new downtown Sylva parking regulations, 90 percent of the text matches an article that appeared in The Herald.

The Sylva Herald’s article quoted town officials and board members discussing the parking issue at a town board meeting. The Western Carolinian used the same quotes, although, according to Hotaling, no reporter was at the meeting where the discussion took place.

Caudell claims that this particular story was digitally sent to the paper’s printer days before The Herald hit the racks, therefore no plagiarism could have occurred. Caudell even provided the digital photo of the story being uploaded to their publisher’s server.

However, The Herald claims the story appeared on its Website prior to that.

“It was on our news blog for several days before their story,” countered Hotaling.

After contacting the student paper, Hotaling says the Western Carolinian agreed to run a clarification but still denied accusations of plagiarism.

In an August 27 e-mail, she told Smith that “we remain convinced that plagiarism occurred.”

However, the Western Carolinian defended their position in an October 11 editorial.

“We stand by our assertion that student staff are innocent of the plagiarism charges,” the editorial stated.

The column also asserts that “Student Affairs administrators concluded the allegations against Western Carolinian staff members were unfounded,” although the statement released by Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs, contains no explicit conclusions of guilt or innocence, saying only that “regrettably, mistakes were made on multiple levels.”

Hotaling said she didn’t expect the paper’s temporary closure or the firestorm that followed, but was only seeking to educate the students and their advisers on actions she saw as inappropriate.

“Obviously we didn’t want them to copy our stories anymore,” said Hotaling. “If it was another for-profit newspaper, we might be more aggressive about it, but not a student paper. We just wanted them to know what was going on. They’re students, they’re learning, but we’d like to see them learn the right way.”

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