Social media: an irritant as well as balm for most intellectual property problems?

That chaps my a$$!

Chaps my a$$!

Kathleen L. Sheppard, a historian of archaeology who blogs at Adventures in History in Archaeology, reported on an interesting article she read at the online publication Broadly, a channel at Vice.com on “The Forgotten Egyptologist and First Wave Feminist Who Invented Wicca,” Margaret Murray, by writer Sarah Waldron.  Sheppard was first excited that the subject of her book–the only book-length biography of Murray published in any language–was also the subject of a mainstream publication!

Sheppard’s heart sank as she realized that “the article is quite good.  But, to be honest, it is good because most of the work was done by me,” and uncredited in any fashion by the writer:

I saw the article, posted by a fellow Egyptologist on facebook.  I read it, excited to learn more about Murray’s work.  Maybe there was something in there that I could learn about her witchcraft studies.  As I read, I realized that I wasn’t learning anything new.  In fact, I was reading my own words, spit back at me, in an online article that was and is being enjoyed by thousands of people.  Some of my own phrases, and most definitely my unique analysis of Murray’s life and career, were there for thousands to see.  Usually, this makes me very happy.  Murray is still little-known outside of a small group of historians and Egyptologists even though she is central to the discipline.  I got to the end of the article and realized there were NO citations.  Not one.  I did a ctrl+F to search for my name, thinking I must have missed where I was mentioned in the article as Murray’s biographer and owner of many of the ideas therein.  Nothing.

Sheppard wasn’t interested in money–she just wanted due acknowledgement for her book and her unique intellectual contribution.  As she explained in the first blog post:

Thousands of people are reading this article, and a vast majority of them don’t know the Margaret Murray I know, the one I wrote about.  And many never will because Waldron did not cite anything.  She has denied interested people the knowledge of more scholarship about Murray–something Murray herself would not like.  I am simply asking for credit where credit is due.  I will mention the dreaded “P” word here, once and once only: Plagiarism is not tolerated in my classroom and should not be tolerated by the editors, authors, or readers of Vice.

What did our intrepid historian do next?  She contacted Waldron on Twitter to alert her of her concerns, described the issue in a detailed blog post, and continued to raise the alarm on Twitter.  Among the first commenters to her article (after Historiann, natch!) was a Broadly UK editor, Zing Tsjeng, who invited Sheppard to get in touch and with her to address the issue.

This story has a happy ending, friends, because Sheppard was speedy and dogged about bringing her concerns to Waldron and to Broadly.  (Importantly, it was Broadly’s intervention that got results–Waldron’s Tweets appear resistant to acknowledging that anyone else’s work went into her article.)  Here’s what happened:  Sheppard sent Tsjeng several PDFs of book chapters, and–

Waldron, who has been extremely gracious during the resolution of this issue, offered her own evidence and sources to Broadly.  Three main sources were revealed to me: online portions of my book through Google books, an article by Ruth Whitehouse, and Murray’s Wikipedia entry.  The author had pulled from these sources.

Ms. Tsjeng read through all the evidence and came to the conclusion that she could see my point.  Both of the sources the author read were based off of my work, and each of them cite me–Wikipedia does so extensively.  Tsjeng, who had been in close contact with Waldron, argued to me that while Waldron used these sources she had simply failed to read all the way through to the citations, or to click through, as it were, to see the main source for the ideas she was pulling.  This is understandable.  I never really thought that Waldron had maliciously plagiarized my work.  I had always believed that she simply did not give due diligence to her research, demonstrated by the fact that neither my book nor any other sources were given for the article.  For the record—I appreciate that the situation was addressed.  The solution is that Tsjeng will edit the article (in fact she already has, seehere) to give me proper credit.  She also said that she will work to give the authors of the other sources credit as well.  As of 8:45am CST that hasn’t been done.

As of 9 a.m. MDT, the original article had been updated as follows:  “Murray’s own history has been extensively documented by Dr Kathleen L. Sheppard in the definitive 2013 biography, The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman’s Work in Archaeology.”  Waldron also uses Sheppard’s name at one other point in the article.

It is so easy to give credit where credit is due!  Writers trained in journalistic convention know that you always have to track down multiple sources and give your sources opportunities to respond to charges or accusations against them.  Is the problem with the training for online writing, or is it the broader problem that the internet makes the world of information so easily available and so easily plagiarize-able?   Sheppard says:

As an academic, I do not want to take away from amateur historians or writers, I simply want them to be better trained in research methods and citation protocol so that these issues become a thing of the past.  In the fast-paced world of online media management, we need a push for accountability.  It is only fair to everyone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again:  while being online (through Open Access publications, un-embargoed dissertations on WorldCat, as well as on social media like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs) can make it easier for people to rip off your writing, it also makes it SO much easier to track down and prove with all due haste (as Yosemite Sam says) that you “got their firstest with the mostest.”

Addressing these things quickly counts for a great deal, given the evanescence of digital writing.  How could one address a case of suspected plagiarism or failure to cite a source that had been tracked down the old-fashioned way, in an embargoed dissertation, and without a social media presence?  A sharply-worded email from Sheppard to Broadly got no response until she went public, and fast.

cowgirlgunsign1The internet is where we live now.  Openness and transparency serves everyone best.  Writers, credit the other writers whose work informs yours–it will only enhance your reputation and impress your readers!  Readers, if you see an article that appears to be based on fairly arcane scholarship without attribution, drop a line to the editors and (MOST IMPORTANTLY) go public!  I’m pretty sure that Tsjeng’s speedy response only happened because of the public, online exchange on Twitter between Sheppard and Waldron, which was recorded and amplified by Sheppard’s blog post.

Social media, FTW!  And many thanks to Kathleen Sheppard for her work in getting it done, and for offering an instructive example to the rest of us.  After all, I wouldn’t want to withhold credit where credit is due.

Let me have it!

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