It would be perfect if it weren’t so unfortunate: a writer with sticky fingers published a story about shoplifting—and got caught stealing. A piece about the Tumblr community of (mostly) young girls who shoplift and tell (“Liftblrs”) by a young writer named Rosie Albrecht that appears in the August/September issue of Bust called “Shoplifters of the World” bears striking resemblance to Tasbeeh Herwees’s popular 2016 Good story, “We R Cute Shoplifters.” The Bust story uses similar historical framing examining the through line from how women thieves were regarded in the early 20th century versus now. It cites much of the same research of the Good piece (often down to the word), quotes many of the same Tumblrs, and makes many of the same points with slight rewording.
For example, Herwees wrote:
These were respectable women, and to label them criminals would undo a social order the elite establishment held precious to its survival. So they were labeled “sick” instead.
In her piece, Albrecht rendered the same idea like this:
Labelling respectable women as criminals would have threatened the entire social order of elite society, and so female shoplifters were declared kleptomaniacs: women who stole because they were ill, and could therefore be cured.
Most egregiously, the published version of Albrecht’s text contained unattributed quotes that Herwees had collected directly from sources via her original reporting. One was from researcher Britney Summit-Gil and another was from one of the anonymous members of the Liftblr community, PrincessKlepto, whose trust Herwees spent weeks gaining in order to report the first-hand perspective on her illegal activity.
“I was legitimately shocked,” Herwees told Jezebel by phone Thursday. She was notified of the copying via text by a friend, who was perusing the new issue of Bust at a bookstore. Soon after on Wednesday, Herwees tweeted about the apparent plagiarism:
How did Bust, which has operated for 25 years without a similar incident, according to its editor-in-chief Debbie Stoller, publish such a piece?
“We were pitched a story by a freelancer, we went over it at the story meeting, it sounded like a good story,” Stoller said by phone Thursday. “We assigned it to her. We have a super tight budget, so we end up working with a lot of writers who are just starting in their careers.”
Stoller said that while Bust articles are fact-checked, “we have a staff of six here that handles everything.” For a glossy, Bust’s staff is and always has been skeletal. So fact-checking hasn’t been as extensive as it is at other publications, which often require the writer to turn in transcripts and/or recordings of interviews that were conducted in the reporting of the piece.
“We never actually searched quotes in stories to make sure they were coming from the writer and not from some other story,” Stoller admitted. “We’re going to do that from now on.”
Stoller said that she was “shocked” and feels terrible. In email correspondence with Stoller, Herwees asked the editor to be paid for her work that ran without attribution in Bust and requested a public apology. Stoller agreed to pay Herwees the fee that was intended for Albrecht, whom she says is no longer eligible for it because she’s in breach of the contract she signed with the magazine which required that the material she submitted be original work. (Stoller wrote in an email to Jezebel that the fee “unfortunately, is not much $ because, well, BUST.”)
On Thursday evening, Bust posted a lengthy apology to Herwees on its website and Twitter. Stoller said the next issue of the magazine will contain a retraction and apology, as well.
It is generally understood to be the primary responsibility of the publication to vet its stories and then fact check them in order to avoid incidents such as these. That said, a small and independent magazine like Bust wouldn’t exist if it didn’t place faith in the work of its contributors, and the baseline ask from any writer is not to plagiarize.
“Even if she’s an unseasoned writer, everybody knows you’re not supposed to copy stuff,” said Stoller.
Herwees expressed sympathy for Albrecht.
“She’s this young kid, the journalism industry sucks, not everyone can afford to go to journalism school, no one should really have to go to journalism school because journalism school is a scam,” said Herwees. “Editors when you’re a freelancer, they’re not giving you training. They’re not saying, ‘Here are the rules.’ They just expect you to know the rules no matter what level you are.”
Albrecht’s LinkedIn states that she’s a student at the University of Chicago, who is set to graduate in 2020.
Albrecht did not respond to several requests for a phone interview, though she did write this email:
The “plagiarism accusations” arose out of a failure to cite the source of some quotations properly within the story. As soon as I realized that the quotations weren’t credited properly, I reached out to the author of the piece I quoted. We’ve already discussed how we can fix the issue and she was very understanding about the mistakes.
This was the first article I’ve ever written for a print publication. I didn’t know the proper protocol for citation in this type of writing, and as a result, I failed to credit Tasbeeh properly, which I now regret terribly and am trying to fix.
Albrecht added that she was “very upset that Jezebel is running a piece on these ‘accusations’ from twitter.” I wrote back to tell her that I understood that all this came about as a result of failing to cite Herwees’s work for that is the defining feature of plagiarism.
After Bust tweeted its apology, Herwees responded:
Earlier Thursday, Herwees told me she was holding Bust responsible as an institution, but having worked at a small publication previously, she could also sympathize with the magazine.
“I think everyone in the media industry is set up to fail in some way,” said Herwees. “I’ve been an editor, I’ve been a full-time writer, and I’ve been a freelance writer. I know what the challenges are in all of those capacities. Even as an editor, when I was working at Good, we had four people on our team. We were working with a very large stable of freelance writers and it’s hard, especially when you’re trying to produce a print publication and you’re on deadline and you have to fact-check every little thing. It’s really, really, really difficult. I’m sure there were things that completely escaped our notice. It’s hard for me from that position to blame anyone who’s vulnerable to the same industry that I am, but at the same time, it sucks.”