Cartoonists Defend Crimson Artist, Criticize Decision to Pull Series

Investigation calls similarities 'apparent plagarism;' cartoonist calls them 'yahtzees'—or minor offenses

The Crimson discontinued the series of editorial cartoons drawn by Kathleen E. Breeden ’09 Sunday night, citing “apparent plagiarism.” But some of the cartoonists whose work Breeden’s cartoons resemble disagreed with The Crimson’s decision yesterday and were split on whether Breeden’s actions were inappropriate.

“I am working closely with the editorial board to institute new policies and strengthen existing ones that will prevent any future occurrence of plagiarism,” Crimson President William C. Marra ’07 wrote in an e-mail yesterday.

“I am very disappointed with the two incidents of apparent plagiarism and improper source citation that we’ve come across recently,” Marra wrote, referring also to the retraction and discontinuation of a biweekly column written by Victoria B. Ilyinsky ’07 last week.

Breeden could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A review of Breeden’s work found a total of four similarities to cartoons available on Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index, an online database that lists and organizes editorial cartoons.

Breeden’s Oct. 25 cartoon is noticeably similar to a cartoon drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Walt Handelsman, published in Newsday on Oct. 16. Handelsman said Sunday that the two pieces “look similar” but that he “certainly won’t” take action against Breeden. He declined to comment further for this article.

Breeden’s Oct. 18 cartoon is noticeably similar to one drawn by Stephen P. Breen of the San Diego Union Tribune, dated Jan. 9, 2003.

“I don’t want to say that she’s plagiarizing because it’s impossible to know,” Breen said yesterday. “It could very well be a coincidence. But I was a little bit troubled by how similar they were.”

Breen added that because Breeden is a student, she should be held to a different standard, though not absolved of responsibility. “When people are young they make mistakes, they do stupid things,” Breen said. “So if she’s guilty of plagiarism, she should be given a second chance.”

Breen and Cagle both said that one of the examples cited in The Crimson yesterday, Breeden’s Oct. 11 cartoon showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il with a mushroom cloud rising from his head, does not constitute plagiarism. Eight similar cartoons are posted on Cagle’s blog, including one by Cagle himself.

“If you stare at a picture of Kim Jong Il, even Joe Schmo off the street will come up with that visual,” Breen said.

“If one guy draws a cartoon, he’s a genius. If two guys draw a cartoon, one’s a plagiarist. If five guys draw it, they’re hacks, and if 10 guys draw it, they’re following a grand tradition,” Cagle said, citing an industry joke.

Although one journalism expert said Sunday night that the similarities warranted further review, Cagle criticized The Crimson yesterday for its decision to discontinue the cartoons.

“Put half the fault on [her] editor, and let the cartoonist develop her own voice,” Cagle said, adding that cartoonists frequently generate the same idea independently.

Cagle said he calls such similarities ‘yahtzees’—a reference to the dice game, in which an identical roll is not considered an offense.

In a post on his blog yesterday evening, Cagle wrote that cartoonists and editors nationwide suffer from “group-think,” making them likely to publish similar cartoons.

“When editors all want the same thing from a cartoonist, and the cartoonists are all drawing on the same topics at the same time, it is no wonder that we come up with the simple, easy, first-gag-that-comes-to-mind,” Cagle wrote. “That is what I see in this poor, besieged Harvard cartoonist.”

Breen said last night that he did not plan to take any action against Breeden.

“Rather than feeling angry towards anyone who’s guilty of plagiarism, I feel sorry for them,” Breen said. “For me, the thrill of editorial cartooning is coming up with my own ideas.”

Cagle said the attention was unwarranted.

“I think you guys need to get a little bit of a spine, step back a little bit, and have a little bit of a sense of what goes on in the world, and why you’re creating this phenomenon,” Cagle said.

—Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at lholland@fas.harvard.edu.