On the surface, the story of Yvonne Hew seems to be a fairly standard story about plagiarism in the age of digital journalism.
Hew, up until recently, wrote a weekly column for the Denver Bronco’s site Mile High Report, which is part of the SB Nation stable of websites. However, a recent column she posted entitled “Horse Tracks: Which Draft prospects should the Denver Broncos avoid?” was recognized as having strong similarities to an article on Scout.com by Erick Trickel entitled “Finding Broncos: 5 NFL Draft Prospects Denver Must Avoid In The First Round”.
The similarities, which were first spotted by a commenter and then reported on Awful Announcing, are very striking. In the side-by-side comparison, Hew’s work uses the same structure, ideas, analogies and much of the same language as Trickel. The two works, aside from light editing, are identical through large portions.
Tim Lynch, the editor of Mile High Report, quickly pulled down the piece after the plagiarism was discovered and also removed most of Hew’s other work on the site.
However, it was one word in Lynch’s statement that caught the attention of so many others. He said, “After talking with the unpaid staffer to hear her justification, reviewing the two articles and talking with our senior staff, I let her go.”
And that, in turn, is the wrinkle in the story. Hew was not an employee of SB Nation or Mile High Report, she was writing for a network site for free.
To make matters worse, the story follows not one, but two separate stories of similar plagiarism on network sites operated by Fansided. The first dealt with an editor of Big Easy Believer who was dismissed after multiple incidents of plagiarism and the second a network writer at Fighting Gobbler who was dismissed after he was caught with verbatim plagiarized text in an article.
These stories raise a simple but difficult question: As journalism craves more and more content, in particular localized content, and turns to unpaid authors, what responsibilities do they have when they commit plagiarism or other ethical infractions?
Such authors are generally not vetted, trained or directly supervised by the publication. They may work with a paid editor, but they do not have a formal relationship with the sites they work for. However, the publications are benefiting greatly from their free labor, selling ads and gaining traffic from their work.
Some, such as the authors at Awful Announcing, see this as similar to blaming Facebook when one of its users plagiarize. To them, it’s not an indictment of the company precisely because the plagiarizing author was not a formal member of the team.
Others, such as Albert Burneko at Deadspin, see it differently. He believes that the plagiarism stems from SB Nation’s practice of relying on unpaid labor, a practice followed at other sports sites, and looks very much to the core of their ethics.
Either way, unpaid writers aren’t going anywhere, especially for hyper-local news such as these sites create. Publications need to realize that, since they aren’t paying or vetting these authors, there is precious little they can do to stop plagiarism. After all, “firing” an unpaid worker is a meaningless act.
Letting untrained and unpaid authors write under your name leave the door wide open to unethical behavior, of which plagiarism is just one component. Low quality and ethically dubious writing will tarnish the name of any publication, even if they attempt to segregate out the amateur authors onto network sites.
In short, if you insist upon using unpaid authors, it’s important to put checks in place to prevent problems before they are published. Plagiarism detection tools can help spot plagiarism but editors will be needed to perform fact checking or scan for legally problematic content.
While all publications can and should use such tools, for sites using free authors, such steps need to be taken to a much greater extent than normal.
To not do so opens the door to plagiarism and countless other issues. However, doing so may eliminate much of the benefit of using free authors in the first place.