Plagiarism is a problem no matter where you find it. When it is uncovered, it can end journalism careers, sully the reputation of novelists and, if it happens in the academic world, get you kicked right out of school. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out recently an article I wrote a couple of years ago had been plagiarized by a fellow blogger.
This past Sunday, I was interviewing Benjamin Radford about his new book for Strange Frequencies Radio. During the course of our discussion, we talked about how frustrating it can be when, while researching a particular topic, you come across websites or even books which contain not just poor scholarship, but so-called “research” which has just been copied and pasted from the internet.
Paranormal sites, it must be said, are often repeat offenders. Over the years, I’ve found a great number of ghost hunting websites whose articles and terminology pages have been lifted, word for word, from other similar websites. After the interview was over, while my co-host Bobby was uploading the recording we made to our server, I was checking out the internet when I noticed I had a new comment here on my Fortean Squirrel blog. A reader named John was informing me that, while reading an article I had written about fraud in the paranormal community, he noticed some similarities to another article he had read online about the same issue. He linked me to the blog post in question and I went to check it out.
What I read was stunning. Large portions of it sounded very familiar. I opened up another page with my own article to check exactly how familiar it was. With only a cursory reading it quickly became clear that, not only did I write my piece a full year before this one, but that entire passages had been copied word for word. It was as if the blogger had simply copied and pasted sections of my article right into her own, not bothering to reword anything.
For instance, in my post, “A Picture of Paranormal Fraud,” in which I document a ghost hunting team called Ghosts of New England Research Society (G.O.N.E.R.S) passing off a fraudulent ghost photo as authentic, I write: “The story soon went viral and Ghosts of New England Research Society took the image down, apparently not commenting publicly on the matter. Many in the paranormal community have taken this incident to be the prime example why paranormal investigation is not accepted by the scientific mainstream.”
Furthermore, I wrote: “Ghost hunters, by and large, have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to operate under proper scientific methodologies or even to control their experiments. The evidence they put forth is not given credibility because it isn’t evidence. At best, it is often just anomalies they found on their digital voice recorders or readings they took on their EMF meters. Anomalies which, by the way, have been explained countless times by science-based investigators.”
Here are partial screenshots taken from the blogger’s page, which includes not just these two paragraphs, but some other portions of my work as well:
This is not exactly the first time this has happened to me. As I mentioned earlier, plagiarism and copying is rampant in the paranormal community, and I have found entire blog posts I have written elsewhere on the internet without any attribution whatsoever. Even the Richard Dawkins Foundation once copied an entire interview I did as a contribution to The Bent Spoon Magazine, pasted it to their own website, and all I got was a tiny link way down at the bottom of the page which was nearly impossible to notice. Why someone would click that link to read my source article when they’ve already been able to read it in its entirety on Richard Dawkins’ website is a mystery. Still, while this sort of thing has happened to me before, this particular instance felt somehow worse. I guess I was happy someone liked my writing, but it just felt so dishonest and sneaky to steal it and pass it off as their own.
I contacted the blogger, Pam Wellington, and chided her for her plagiarism. I explained how dishonest it is, and told her that it is shockingly ironic to be writing an article about fraud and poor research when she is fraudulently using my work as her own. She actually got back to me within about 24 hours and was, I felt, sincere in her contrition. She apologized for what she had done, and thanked me for calling her out on it. She said that, while she is normally very meticulous, she had probably rushed this particular article. I was not clear how simply being in a hurry led her to copy whole portions of my work into her own, but be that as it may. She promised to delete the sections she had plagiarized, and I’ve remained in contact with her to make sure of that, since she doesn’t seem entirely confident on what she stole and what she didn’t.
I’m satisfied with the outcome thus far, and I thanked Pam for being receptive to criticism. She owned her mistake, and I appreciated that, even if I wasn’t happy with the situation that led to our correspondence. Some will say I let her off easy, and maybe I did. The truth is, I could have just made her delete the whole blog. But I didn’t really want that. I just wanted what was fair. If my rebuke leads to her being more careful about citing her sources in the future, and ensuring the work she says is her own really is her own, I consider that a win.
Plagiarism will likely remain an ongoing issue, particularly in the paranormal community. The one thing I think we can do is to call it out when we happen to find it. Tell the writer it is unacceptable, and affects your decision on whether you will continue reading their work. I haven’t always had good luck getting a response from people who I have found to have stolen my work before but, at least in this case, the outcome appears to be headed in a more positive direction.