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On Shortcuts, Originality... and Casablanca

February 28th, 2013 by 
PK

Warning: Prose ahead. If you come here for the calculators and graphs, skip this one - it goes in our 'Offbeat' section.

Editor: After this post ran, the blog in question, Finance Fox, posted an interesting apology which raises additional questions.  It appears that at least some of the plagiarized content may have come from a ghost writer.  A quick Google of "Finance Fox ghost writer" reveals some forum threads on the topic.

However, that thread is dated August 20, 2012, and many of the posts in questions go back before that time.  I'll start with these questions... What were the instructions to the ghost writer?  What about the posts before August?  Perhaps we'll never know.

Also, see the extensive collection of plagiarism collected by some of the plagiarized and linked in an article on Timeless Finance.

"Integrity", as C.S. Lewis once noted, "is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching."

Wise words in a simpler era – but perhaps the quote needs a revision.

What does integrity mean in a fast-paced era where digital publishing makes it easy to rush to press? An era where the value of the written word has declined precipitously? Or even an era when any blogger with the inclination to fact check your work can quickly figure out if you're telling the truth?

Not Here, Too...

With the risk that I might appear to you as Captain Renault in Casablanca, while reading Financial Uproar's accusations of plagiarism at the web site Finance Fox, I was pretty shocked. Now this behavior has allegedly been going on for a while so there still may be cards to be played, but a number of things have already happened in reaction to that piece.  The proprietor of Finance Fox has taken down the offending posts referenced in the article and comments [Ed: This point is in dispute, please see the comments here and the comments on the Financial Uproar post.  It appears not all of the articles were addressed.  Further, as of 3/5/2013 there is a list linked here.].  To my knowledge, the only response or acknowledgement directly from Finance Fox's creator at this point (allegedly, since it came on a third party site) was a flippant remark on the Financial Uproar post - the first comment on that article, in fact.

Copy machine picture
This Image? From Morgue File.

Honestly, I hope this is some sort of a weird mix-up or coincidence (perhaps a rogue ghost writer or assistant?) and not a case of blatant plagiarism – but at some point optimism yields to overwhelming evidence. Maybe I'm naïve, but it does seem like the end of an era in our corner of the blog world.

Blogging, especially for profit, is a huge pressure-cooker. Once you recognize how fleeting gains are on the internet, you quickly realize that often quantity can defeat quality, at least in the short run. There is an entire industry – Search Engine Optimization – dedicated to exploiting search engine algorithms in order to make posts falsely appear to have quality (at worst – at best, SEO explains how to label legitimate content). There are almost no barriers to entry, as our friend JT at the site Money Mamba once aptly noted. In that model, what happens?

Blogging styles quickly diverge to a few extremes – some bloggers attempt to post daily, hoping that some content will 'hit'. Others pour effort into each post, attempting to achieve perfection with every press of WordPress's 'Publish' button. Unfortunately, still others attempt to find a shortcut – whether it is lifting copyrighted material from other sites and blogs or participating in some of the shadier of the SEO schemes.

There's the Messenger, Shoot Him! (Or, Misplace the Blame)

In some cases when someone takes a shortcut and gets caught, there's a tendency to look at auxiliary factors for why something occurred.  In this particular example, even if we don't yet have closure, we still have seen some of this. Let me defend the innocent here – people are sniffing the wrong tree.

First off, some of the commenters on the original post on Financial Uproar have literally turned the spotlight on the site owner, Nelson! Folks, somebody has to be the Joe Rogan to the PF world's Carlos Mencia, (I wrote that before American Debt Project commented on the post, but this notice prevents obvious irony) and I applaud someone for putting the evidence together. You don't have to be Martin Niemöller to see the slippery slope inherent in not speaking up.  As Edmund Burke put it, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Claiming that his post is somehow self-serving is petty; ad hominem attacks have no part in a serious accusation such as this one. Either the writing is stolen, or it is original – there is no grey area.

Second, a number of commenters have targeted the group where the alleged plagiarizer counted himself a member.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, DQYDJ was also a member of that network, Yakezie.) Let me state, in no uncertain terms – if it ends up that the Finance Fox did lift material from other sites, in no way should that reflect on the remaining hundreds of members of the network. Lady Justice may be blind (and often slow), but she is tireless – and if the allegations bear fruit, I have no doubt that she will also be fair.  But don't let one bad fruit spoil the whole barrel.

Journalism has had no shortage of scandals in the last few years, and once proof was sufficient, justice was swift. For a specific example, recently Fareed Zakaria found himself in hot water for much the same reasons. Integrity doesn't only apply to plagiarism, of course – journalists have also been harmed by improperly vetted source material, fabricated witness accounts, and shady insider dealings. If bloggers are to be taken serious, we have to police our own – letting ethical breaches stand will only cause blogging to have a seriously negative reputation.

Don't Be Part of the Problem

Another issue that came up while this whole event has been unfolding is that people really don't have a good idea of how copyright works (read this with an American frame of mind).  While plagiarizing copyrighted material is an easy example and plagiarization is a part of the honor code in most schools and professional organizations, equally important is that copyright also applies to images.  You might think pictures on a Flickr account are just one flick of a Canon T3i's shutter... but that's not the case.  Like any blog post, there are a myriad of ideas and conditions necessary for a shot to come together - everything from travel and location to weather and lighting (to editing, collating, and uploading).  Just because it is easy to find something with Google doesn't mean you can repost it on your site without question.  Remember - your writing isn't just the words on your website, but the confluence of the data you collect, the research you read, and the topics you had to decide to write upon.  Do the right thing, and get public domain images or images with other compatible licenses.  (We grab photos from Flickrcc and Morgue File; others have success with stock.xchng)

As writers, we also fall under a different ethical code, one that bloggers wouldn't have imagined back in 2000.  Our words have weight... when we recommend something, people listen.  When you receive payment for product and service links, affiliate links, giveaways and reviews (or something else that wasn't organic) you should disclose somewhere (on that page, not hidden on some other page) that something on the page is there due to a sponsorship.  If my word isn't good enough for you, read the FTC's endorsement guide.

Also, (and this part has nothing to do with copyright) be original.  There is no copyright on ideas, sure... but if you can't add to the discussion on a topic, there is no need to toss another cup of water into the ocean.  Blogging and writing is about relationships.  Even if people can't do anything against you legally, they won't appreciate it if you quickly re-spin their ideas without adding anything new - even if you ensure there is no plagiarism.  Oh, and if you do respond to a piece?  Link to the original post or report - you'll find that most bloggers enjoy the back and forth discussions that happen when we publish for the whole world to see - even when we disagree.  Remember, people like being noticed; we like knowing there is someone out there reading the words we agonize over.

Don't Defend the Indefensible

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” - Warren Buffett

If the accusations are true in the Financial Uproar report, it doesn't matter how nice of a person the accused may be. For all I know, Jonah Lehrer is a great guy... that doesn't excuse his actions. What's wrong is wrong, and there is no excuse for plagiarism. Taking material is not a victimless crime... producing original material is a difficult job, between coming up with topics, researching, writing, and (yes...) promoting. Pretending it's not a big deal is a slippery slope.

Seriously, I hope this turns out to be a whole lot of nothing... but even if it was a misunderstanding, it really marks the end of an era.  Sure, Personal Finance isn't the most original of topics – but if you're going to write on a basic concept you should at least be able to bring something new to the table – or at least word your piece differently. There's no excuse for plagiarism, it is a big deal, and willfully ignoring something or minimizing its importance does no one any favors.

Don't Quit Your Day Job...

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