Buzz Blog

Sleazy Science Journalism and Aggregation

Thursday, August 16, 2012
Several scandals have rocked the world of journalism this summer with a sharp focus on science journalism in particular. Most prominently, Jonah Lehrer, the popular neuroscience book author and contributor for Wired and the New Yorker, was caught reusing his own content and fabricating quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan. He resigned from his job at the New Yorker, but Wired has decided to keep publishing Lehrer's work.

While Lehrer has taken the spotlight, journalistic indiscretions seem to be increasingly common outside of such high-profile cases. Most recently, Science News published a story last Friday about a new forensic camera technology that can uncover hidden blood stains. Pretty cool, right?

What's not so cool? A once trusted news service, United Press International, lifted passages from the article without attribution. For instance, Rachel Ehrenberg, the original author at Science News, wrote the following: "Spattered blood intentionally hidden under layers of paint can be detected with a standard digital camera that’s been tweaked to record infrared light."

Meanwhile, UPI -- whose slogan ironically reads, "100 years of journalistic excellence" -- wrote this several days later: "Spattered blood intentionally painted over can be detected with a standard digital camera tweaked to record infrared light, Australian researchers say." Not only did they steal exact words from Ehrenberg's article, but they also incorrectly attributed the phrasing to the researchers. They didn't even link back to the original article. By the way, Rachel Ehrenberg's tweet from this morning brought this case to my attention.

In the past, several websites have aggregated our material or our partners' material, so I've collected some good, bad and "gray area" examples from the past few months. By revealing instances of wrongdoing (and acceptable practices), perhaps we can reverse this seeming trend toward excessive aggregation and dishonesty within science journalism.

The Bad: Potential Plagiarism at the International Business Times

A few months ago, I wrote an article for Inside Science News Service about Jupiter's potentially melting core. The news service allows websites to freely use their material so long as they cite ISNS, keep the byline and avoid changing anything except for the headline or sub headers. You can read the news service's reprint rights on their website.

The International Business Times decided not to do this. Instead, they re-worded my article with several suspiciously similar sentences. Although they did attribute some (but not all) of the quotes they took from ISNS, they should have simply posted the article as it was instead of pretending to report the story. UPI played this same quote attribution game in the aforementioned Science News case, but attributing one quote does not excuse lifting or paraphrasing other passages from a story.

For example, I originally wrote: "Nonetheless, the authors found that magnesium oxide -- an important compound likely found in Jupiter's core -- would liquefy and begin drifting into Jupiter's fluid upper envelope under these relatively tame conditions."

Later, IBT's Amir Khan wrote: "The computer program showed that magnesium oxide, a mineral likely found in Jupiter's core, liquefies and begins mixing with the rest of the planet at the simulated temperatures."

While this isn't word-for-word copy/pasting, the author did take the same sentence structure while interchanging a few words without citing his apparent source. That's dishonest.

More troubling, however, is the fact that the science becomes less clear during this process. There are several instances in the IBT article where the author chose slightly different phrasing that distorts the science behind my piece.

The Good: i09's Hat Tips and RealClearScience

i09 -- the science and science fiction arm of the Gawker empire -- has aggregated our content pretty honestly in the past. For instance, they have written about the same topics as us, but they provide a different angle without re-using our material. Also, they tend to link to us at the bottom of the post if our original article inspired their post. That works for me.

Example: Our post vs. io9 post.

RealClearScience takes a different yet equally acceptable approach, in my mind. They tend to quote maybe a few sentences from our posts then provide a link to the original post. This gives their readers just enough of a teaser to want to read more on our site, and this exemplifies aggregation at its best.

Example: Our post vs. RealClearScience snippet

The Gray: 3quarksdaily Aggregation

Some sites, like 3quarksdaily, have aggregated our content in a different way. Instead of posting a few sentences from one of our blog posts, 3quarksdaily pasted, with correct attribution, about 260 words of the original post. This was a huge chunk of the original post, and this selection captured most of the post's "punchline" as well. That's not going to encourage as many people to click the little link at the bottom; they already read what they needed.

While I appreciate that 3quarksdaily linked to one of our posts, I'm wary of the significant portions of articles that they aggregate. I don't know what the word count "cut-off" should be for an aggregated story, but they push that limit pretty far. A mention from 3quarksdaily gave us a bump in web traffic, but I wonder how many readers simply stayed on 3quarksdaily after reading much of the re-published post.

Attribution has become an increasingly tricky issue online. But some people in the journalism community seem to condone behavior that is clearly unacceptable. Concrete examples of unethical journalism -- such as Lehrer's fabricated quotes and reuse of his own material -- are still punished, as evidence by the New Yorker's decision to let Lehrer go. Nonetheless, Wired has decided to keep Lehrer as a contributing writer despite these infractions. Does condoning his behavior send the right message?

Maybe there should be a set of agreed upon guidelines for attribution, such as those suggested in a NY Times piece from earlier this year. Or maybe there's simply too much pressure placed on some journalists nowadays to produce large amounts of content quickly. No matter how much pressure journalists face, however, we can't resort to stealing from each other. That's a disservice to the principles behind both journalism and science.

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Posted by Hyperspace