A Breach of Trust
Over at xoom, meg raises some very good questions about the growing blog news aggregation service that is Medieval News and its larger entity, Medievalists.net. It advertises itself as "is your source for news, articles, videos and resources about the Middle Ages". And it is, sort of. Although I do tend to be annoyed by that last assertion, since there are, in face, many sources for resources that are very good and not-for-profit, e.g., Monastic Matrix and ORB.
Where I am most concerned, though, is that, if you look over the actual news articles for MN, you will see, as meg points out, that the names and original sources have been stripped out. Again, my concern is not so much about copyright per se: if there are legal issues, they are between MN and the people who hold copyright to the news stories. After all, IANAL, nor do I play one for fun or money. Rather, I'm concerned because I have been sending my students to the site to try to get them to see that what we do is interesting and fun. And they have been going to the site and reading it. This is problematic, because my students are taught that using the writing of others without attribution is plagiarism. At SLAC, if they blogged or wrote a paper in the way that MN blogs news, they would face Academic Integrity charges with penalties up to and including possible expulsion. And now they have access to a site run by people who say they are academics, doing exactly what I have been telling them they can't do.
The scraping of names has another practical problem. Even if my students were to cite the MN news posts, even if they were very careful in their own documentation, there is a very good chance that they would miss that the original article came from the BBC Website, or the Grauniad or elsewhere. And that's not fair to them (although it's a teaching moment in waiting).
Finally, as Janice pointed out in a comment at meg's post, the scraping means that, when doing Google searches for information, because of the way people link to MN, and the way MN posts its news, MN and the posts that link to it come up first -- and I've done a check: often the first 6 or 7 search results all go back to MN, rather than the original source. This means two things: obviously, MN appears to the casual reader to be the original source of the story. This seems to me to be confusing at best. The other thing is that MN makes money from advertising, so that there would appear to be a direct financial advantage to more people going to the MN site, rather than to the original sources. Obviously, I can't say whether or not that is true, or whether it is the intent of the nice people who run the site to mislead people or turn a profit from the uncredited work of others. But these practices make me uncomfortable, and for that reason, I am going to have to suggest to my students that they avoid the site.
This saddens me, because I have met the MN people at the Zoo. They present as colleagues. They present the site as something we should use, and encourage others to use. Unlike the booksellers and publishers, who pretty much stay near the bookroom and the wine hours, they mingle as academics and colleagues rather than as business people. But MN does not feel very collegial to me, because I feel I can't trust it with my students. Perhaps this is a big misunderstanding, and I just can't find the links to the original articles at other sites. But until I can show my students where to go to find what they should be citing, I am going to have to recommend that they stay away from it as much as I recommend they not use Wikipedia.
Update: If your work happens to end up on the web in plagiarized form, here is what you can do
NOTE: Follow up posts here and here