Plagiarism as a spectrum

July 26th, 2010
By Dave Mosher

cheating on a testLast week, fresh in the wake of the digital hurricane that was PepsiGate, science writer Brian Switek saw a funny thing: what appeared to be part of his story on a website he had never written for.

On July 16, Smithsonian.com ran a piece Switek wrote about dinosaurs that snacked on unfortunate burrowing mammals (with cool skeleton-in-the-stomach fossils to boot). As is common in the competitive science news industry, some other outlet — Tom Feilden’s blog at the BBC in this case — eventually posted a similar piece.

But according to Switek and many others, the wording in the BBC’s post looked a bit too similar.

Switek pointed out this curiosity in the article’s comments section, eventually announcing “slimy” behavior on Twitter. Allegations of  plagiarism ensued, and Charlie Petit of Knight Science Journalism Tracker played referee.

Just as fans of Switek ran for pitchforks and torches, Feilden managed to defuse the situation. He not only quoted Switek in piece, but explained how the similarity occurred and flat-out apologized. It may have taken too long in the minds of Switek et al., but in the end it was a very stand-up action on par for a science writer (I’ve found our ranks to be an unusually civil bunch).

Not being a legal expert, however, I can’t and won’t try to determine where this event falls on the spectrum of plagiarism.

Rather, I’m rehashing this to explore that perceived spectrum, because I’ve been there before.

In my mind, this “plagiarism spectrum” ranges from fully documented attribution of sources on the good end (borderline annoying, but nonetheless anti-plagiarism) to shameless copying of content and denial of doing so on the bad end (painfully obvious and mean plagiarism).

I sympathize with Switek and others who have had similar experiences, even though I wouldn’t have acted the same way.

When I first started cranking out science news, robots — yes, robots — were the first to plagiarize my work.

Ok, I teased you with visions of maniacal machines. The truth is a bit less exciting: Some smart-ass tech wizards programmed computers (aka “the robots”) to copy popular news stories, reproduce them fully on evil ad-supported web sites, and finally create a dearth oodles of links to/from them in attempt to game the PageRank system.

One website, I recall, was particularly blatant about swiping my work on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. I whined to my then-boss, a cease-and-desist letter was promptly issued, and the rogue content came tumbling down.

This is blatant, flashing-red-alarm example of plagiarism with a happy ending. But more often than not, I think, science writers find themselves in a gray area and (rightfully) stay there.

I recently wrote a piece about 3-D visualization of exploding stars. I had to dig a bit for the study and, after speaking with the paper’s authors, discovered that no other journalists had asked about it. In other words: I had a cool, exclusive and visually striking science news story on my hands. National Geographic News ran the piece, and it even included a video.

This was on April 30. More than a month later, I noticed a very similar article on Nature News.

Uh oh?

Not by a long shot.

Nature News’ story had a similar structure and discussed the same science, and to the best of my knowledge I was the first to write about the research. In spite of this, however, nothing smelled of the stinky plagiarism end of the spectrum. No copying of quotes, phrasings or anything at all, and the author — Eric Hand — took a different approach to writing about the meat of the study.

In fact, I think Hand did a better treatment. Ignoring the fact that we wrote our pieces for different audiences, he squeezed in more and better descriptions of the science that I ultimately had to leave out. Sorry, Dave Mosher’s ego.

Some would cry foul and argue that this is a duplicated story idea. But you know what? At the very worst I take it as compliment (the whole “imitation is flattery” thing), and consider it a win-win situation. A respectable outlet — one which I’ve had the pleasure of writing for before — paid a great journalist to report on the same study I wrote about for a very different crowd.

As before, I can’t and won’t speculate, this time on how/where Hand got his idea for the story. But I will note that the study in question was posted on arXiv.org, a public preprint server, and had a super-sexy title: “Three-Dimensional Simulations of Mixing Instabilities in Supernova Explosions” (what astro-loving science journalist wouldn’t want to write about that?)

To wrap this up, plagiarism is a very serious accusation and is best left for people who certifiably know the law well enough to make such an accusation. And because of the embargo system* science news outlets rely upon, I think we shouldn’t be so quick to jump the gun. (That’s another blog post, though.)

I know I’m not the first to suggest this, but perhaps what science journalists could do better is to explain the inception of their published story ideas. In my mind “according to a study in the journal…” doesn’t always cut it, if that phrase is even in a story.

Some writers will argue this a great way to get scooped, but I’m not calling writers to hand out an inside source’s phone number or even name. Rather, a simple “Story idea from public information officer” or “Article derived from unrelated interview with a scientist” or “This news piece is based on a preprint server study” could work.

Think of it as a service to the reader in attempt to give clarity to the “plagiarism spectrum.” Part of our job, after all, is to make things as easy and as clear as possible.

Some writers — in particular bloggers — do a good amount of this already. But what do you think about extending it as a standard? Or is the “old way” good enough? Better yet, do you have a better idea?

Photo courtesy of Jared Stein/Flickr

* Ivan Oransky has taken it upon himself to start the first-ever and most excellent Embargo Watch blog. It’s extremely good stuff, and a must-follow blog for science writer types. Also, for devout science news readers who are curious about the genesis of many popular articles.

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  • http://blogs.nature.com/ud725242a/ Jackie

    It would be rather odd to see a line in an article about how a science writer “discovered” an amazing science article by a scientist who “discovered” something amazing. Your discovery of the article is not news. (It’s your job to be on top of these things, right?) A blog, however, is the perfect place to write the backstory about how you got the idea, the lengths you went to gather your sources, and the extra bits that didn’t make it to the article.

  • hopeless pendantry

    (“dearth” = small number/scarcity. Try “surfeit”. Or “buttload”. Or do people really create bots to make too few links?)

    Also, plagiarism is a BLACK and WHITE issue of EVIL and GOOD. My ethics teacher in grad school told me so. /sarcasm

  • http://davemosher.com Dave Mosher

    Jackie: Thanks for your perspective! Not at all saying how journalists discover stories is “amazing” in any way — quite the opposite, 99 percent of the time.

    More of what I’m getting at: Journalism’s duty is to citizens and independence from sources is a cornerstone to the trade, so on those notes alone I think full disclosure is favorable for readers. But in the context of plagiarism, it would — as I said before — also lend more clarity to the article’s genesis. I.e. would you care if a published story was essentially a copied press release vs. a hand-tailored story that emerged from the words of an eminent scientist? I do, so maybe we might disagree there.

    hopeless pedantry: D’oh, correction made. Thanks, and appreciate the sarcasm.