Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Breach of Trust

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, 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


Janice said...

I agree with you that I would like MN to make more immediately available the links to the original articles they're reframing -- I would be happy to send my students to MN (or to track MN in their readers) if that were the case.

It could very well be that whatever software they're using to gather and reframe these articles doesn't automatically make that linking for them. But I'm sure that they could add that in and it would be a great boon. Even if they don't want to host discussion there (and I can't blame them since some strange types tend to fill up commenting logs on news-oriented sites), it would also be a great way to build discussion and awareness among the historical blogosphere!

Marc said...

Thanks, I hadn't really noticed until you mentioned it. There really is no gray area here: MN is breaking longstanding blogger protocol, much less academic, by not providing the original source material for their posts. I don't usually go for such things, but maybe medieval bloggers should band together to publicize this "oversight" on MN's part and get them to change...or risk being blacklisted by the medieval blogospher.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Good point. Delinked them. said...

I am going to respond to these comments soon - but right now I am so LIVID that I can't do it a calm fashion. I will give our side of the story soon

Jonathan Dresner said...

"Livid"? About what? I've looked at the site and ADM's description of the posts there is accurate: some of it was clearly copied from identifiable sources (not identifiable from the post itself, mind you) and some of it appears to be paraphrases that I wouldn't accept from my students, but, again, usually without sources identified. And the text-to-ad ratio (including the deeply annoying one-post-per-page setting) indicates a profit motive.

Apologize, start putting blockquotes and links in, and move on.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Jonathan. Couldn't have said it better.

I'd love to see an explanation that justifies this. But really, what I want most to see is a site I can trust my students with, and that means careful and correct citation and attribution for each news article and a permission statement for each download.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

Oh, please.

You're stripping the html. You've omitted the RSS feed data, and the post metadata. This was done by hand--as the errors in some post show.

There is no "our side."

This is entirely inappropriate behavior, for a blogger, a writer, or anyone with any claim at all to scholarly ethics which are built on citations.

DMCA takedown information is here for those not sure how to go about it:

There are sample templates to use to make sure you're meeting all the requirements.

Notice, by the way, they're getting ad revenue on your work.

C. Margery Kempe said...

I guess "information wants to be free" but people keep trying to make a profit from it. Phhhft. Credit your sources. It's a fairly simple concept. said...

Sandra and I both have written out responses to address the criticisms leveled against us.

Here is Peter's:

Before I address some other issues, I will deal with the heart of the accusations against us - that we (and in particular myself, for the news sections are my responsibility) are scrapping or cut-and-pasting the news articles from other sources.

First, to begin with, I am not a professional journalist, but I take journalistic ethics seriously. Every year I have been doing the Medieval News I have made efforts to make the reporting better and more indepth. I take a lot of pride in being able to give you hundreds of posts each year, and in being the best source of news for the medieval community.

Now many (for example six of the last seven posts on Medieval News) of the articles I post are based on press releases. They come from universities, museums, publishers, and many, many other organizations. I actually get at least several press releases a day sent directly to me by email, along with various attachments like photos. They are widely used by all media, and it is a standard practice among all media - newspapers, TV, online, etc. to use them and not attribute them.

On some occasions I make changes to the material I find or receive, usually to provide a little more indepth information; in other cases I dont make any changes to them at all. Tracking down and preparing this news is a very time consuming process - I typically spend two hours to post three news articles - so I am not particularly eager to make vast rewrites of the information.

I also do prepare and write news pieces that are totally made up from my own investigative work, which involves lots of research, conducting email and telephone interviews, and checking sources. But this is very difficult to do on a non-existent budget and with a lot of other pressures on how much time I can spend on one thing.

Now, if I do post an article based on a press release, it is usually not hard to find that other news organizations have a similar, if not exactly the same news report on their site - this can be the BBC, Irish Times, Washington Post, or CNN - we are all using the same single press release to base our information on.

In doing so, I think I am following a pretty standard journalistic guideline here - and I am in no way breaking any rule about plagiarism or academic standard - if I am doing something wrong here, so is every reputable news organization in the world, and I dont think it is fair that I should be held to some higher level of accountability than say the BBC. said...

I see from some of the comments I have found that are some posts we have made that have that were inadvertently someone's blog piece or news article they wrote for another publication - I get a lot of my information by using databases that don't always provide by-lines or make it seem as if they are university press releases. If I have posted something by mistake, I would of course take it down if I actually got a notice or email asking me too - and over the several years I have been doing this, I have never been asked to take down a single post.

However, I can understand that a large portion of our audience is academics, and they would like to know exactly where a news article is getting cited from, and I will in the future, include a link to the original source when available.

I now would like to address another issue - the fact that I only learned of these accusations by accident as I was surfing around the net. To see the stuff written about me and my partner is deeply upsetting, and this was all done without first asking me for my version of events is very unethical. I am easy enough to contact - by email at least, and I even have my phone number listed on the site. I have yet to receive a single email from anyone asking me about this - instead some bloggers have decided to write malicious accusations about us and tell people not to go to our sites without the decency of hearing my views on the topic. As someone who has been working on bringing better online resources for the medieval academic community for nine years, I expected better treatment by my colleagues than this. said...

Sandra's response:

First and foremost, we ARE a business and we don't pretend that we aren't. We were medieval students in university who went on to pursue other lines of work (Library Studies and Human Resources) and realized we wanted to make our living doing something we LOVE in medieval studies. Since we didn't go the academic route and become professors, we decided to make a career by creating a site that generates interest in the Middle Ages.

Yes, we make money on the site, there is nothing to be ashamed of by admitting we are making money doing what we love. That is the point - we want to work full time doing what we love: generating interest in medieval history.We want to make this our careers. The site will hopefully become our livelihood one day and we can quit our current "day jobs" i.e., being a librarian and being an HR professional to do what we love 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. At this point, it is something we do every night while juggling full time work, family life and night school until it can become more than a part time effort.

In response our mingling with academics at Kalamazoo and coming off as 'colleagues as opposed to business people', i.e., not 'staying in the booksellers area', well, my response to that is that we aren't selling anything. We are a business, but we aren't selling articles, or book reviews or interviews. None of our readers pay to use the site or it's resources. That is not how we make our living.

We're a site that aims to be a resource for medievalists; much like a online library but with more than just journal articles; we also have interesting sections for articles, books, book reviews, news tidbits, games, movies and interviews with authors and academics, to help bring exposure to their work and to all things medieval.

We attend conferences to listen to sessions on new up and coming medieval work and post synopsis of the events and work so that it is accessible to the general public. We often interview the Professors giving these papers, thereby giving them exposure to our readers. Please see the link to the Toronto Medieval Marriage conferences listed below showing what we do: said...

Please note, that the summaries include the author's name. We are here to promote their medieval work.

There was a comment regarding us not permitting comments on the main website. We have received mail about this before. My partner posted a survey on the Facebook page asking our readers whether they would like comments allowed or not on the main website; the response was no so we listened to the majority.

We allow comments on our Facebook page but have found that we spend an inordinate amount of time policing inappropriate comments (racist, sexist etc...). We have decided to allow commentary on the Facebook page since it is a social networking site. However, we will not allow comments on the main website because we do not want to spend all our time refereeing inappropriate comments. We want to keep the main site polished and professional. Facebook is a more general forum for this kind of commentary to occur and we do monitor the Facebook page so all and any comments are welcome there.

We are deeply hurt by these accusations of plagiarism. We are here to help promote the work of other medievalists, not steal it. The section in question is Medieval News.The articles my partner researches are university press releases that often site no author name. However, ignorance is no excuse, and in an effort to listen to criticism and take it to heart, going forward, we will put the link to the original news article at the bottom of the our re-framed news article. We never intended to upset our readers or take credit for other people's hard work. We are deeply hurt by this because our purpose is to promote the work of medievalists on our site and encourage the public to learn about the Middle Ages through their efforts. We are the medium for their message. We hope that this change to our posting methods will allow you to recommend us to your students once more as a serious site for future medievalists. We thank you for bringing this oversight to our attention and hope to foster a better relationship with you and your students. We take these comments very seriously and strive to remain professional and honest.

Jonathan Dresner said...

To see the stuff written about me and my partner is deeply upsetting, and this was all done without first asking me for my version of events is very unethical.

I disagree. In journalism it is conventional to (at least pretend to) attempt to get a reaction/response from the subject of reportage. In scholarship, however, we make our best case, and we're not required to go beyond the existing evidence; in fact, allowing the subject of research to comment, guide it or contribute to it would be considered a breach of standards in many cases.

I think I am following a pretty standard journalistic guideline here - and I am in no way breaking any rule about plagiarism or academic standard

Similarly, while you may be following a standard journalistic shortcut -- one which is common, but by no means highly thought of in journalistic circles, you are unquestionably violating academic standards with regard to the proper use of sources. You've recognized that, and have committed to better practice in the future, for which I commend you. But don't pretend that this is a "tempest in a teacup" or that there was no problem before.

Anonymous said...

Heh. The exact same comments left on my blog -- despite the fact that ADM and I took rather different approaches to the problem.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Not everyone would agree:,0,3251750.htmlstory

Moreover, there are indeed cases where there is a copyright or byline included in a source that has not made it to Now perhaps those people posting under bylines were also using press releases for some of their stories. It's also possible that some news organs, like the Independent, share reporters or have contracts with wire services like Reuters that allow some embedding without citation.

But, for example, the Giotto story you posted has a quote referring to Reuters being told X, and just a bit of googling shows that the original story was a Reuters exclusive, that then appeared in various re-written versions several days later. Either way, it seems difficult to believe that there isn't a clearer chain of publication available to when I can google these things.

But you know? I shouldn't have to.

Meg posted a lot of what I'd like to say at her site, and I need sleep. The most important thing is that is willing to change its attribution policy. But I'm still troubled by the subtext I'm seeing here, and want to sleep on it before I decide whether I'm imagining it.

Kate said...

I'm just going to come right out and say it. I don't like the subtext, and regardless of justification I think it's an illegitimate use of other people's intellectual property. Either the site is a journalistic endeavor, or it is an academic endeavor. (Note how I'm purposely leaving aside the issue of money, as there's nothing wrong with making money off a site.) If it is a journalist endeavor, there are still ethical standards regarding source materials and the use of press releases. Simply printing press releases without any attribution does not count as ethical journalism. Simply copying materials with no indication of their source, in journalism, is still plagiarism. Of course, if it is an academic venture (as indicated by the business owner's strong defense of their right to the title of academician), then the situation is far graver. I would personally never rely on a press release, much less an unsourced press release, to provide material - and I'm an undergrad! Presenting C&Ped press releases as academically reliable material suitable for use by students is not cool. Personally, I'd rather use Wikipedia - at least there, there's likely to be clear attribution to sources.

Anonymous said...

This is quite interesting, from outside at least, because I have wondered in the past what MN's editorial process was, having noticed here and there (usually where News for Medievalists and either Archaeology in Europe or Michelle Moran have covered the same story, the latter two only doing headline-and-link posts) that the texts on MN were not the same but clearly related. So Peter's explanation of what he does is enlightening. However, the fact that from their posts it's impossible to find out more without websearching up other versions, often less informedly-edited, has often bothered me, so if this furore means that that will change then I think everyone ought to be more or less happy with the outcome.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Proper linking and attribution will make the site much more valuable; as it has been, I've never used it much, simply because much of the material is a dead end -- of uncertain provenence. And if I don't read it, I can't recommend it.