Medievalists Joust Over Blog
A popular medieval studies blog has come under fire from a number of academics for allegedly republishing original content from other publications without attribution.
“Medieval News, which many of us rely on for quick updates on the latest hoard, mass grave, or DNA ridonkulousness, is essentially a scraping service with some questionable policies,” Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College, wrote on her own blog on Sunday.
Another medievalist blogger, who goes by the Web alias Another Damned Medievalist, echoed Worley’s criticisms in a post later that day. “I have been sending my students to the site to try to get them to see that what we do is interesting and fun,” she wrote. “…This is problematic, because my students are taught that using the writing of others without attribution is plagiarism.”
Over the next two days, the comment sections of those blogs became the site of a debate between Worley and her sympathizers and amateur medievalists Peter Konieczny and Sandra Sadowski -- the founders of Medievalists.net, which publishes Medieval News and several other sites -- over whether Medieval News runs afoul of professional ethics or copyright law.
“There really is no gray area here,” wrote one commenter. “MN is breaking longstanding blogger protocol, much less academic, by not providing the original source material for their posts.”
“I’ve looked at the site and ADM's description of the posts there is accurate,” wrote Jonathan Dresner, an associate professor of history at Pittsburg State University, in Kansas. “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.”
A “livid” Konieczny responded, saying that the bulk of his posts are reprints of press releases issued by museums, universities and other organizations, which are generally pleased to have their releases republished elsewhere. “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,” he wrote. “If I am doing something wrong here, so is every reputable news organization in the world.”
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Konieczny estimated that press releases account for about 80 percent of the content he publishes on Medieval News. And while he admitted that he sometimes pulls quotes and information from wire stories, Konieczny said that in those cases he attributes to the wire services -- or, at least, to “a reporter” or “reporters.” Konieczny’s posts have not included links to the original sources of content, but he said that he plans to start doing that now.
“All I can say is that I’ve never intentionally [plagiarized],” he said. “It’s just that sometimes if I get the info, it’ll come by e-mail or through an RSS feed, and information doesn’t get passed on if there’s a particular writer.”
Worley, who said she went through four months’ worth of posts on Medieval News, cross-checking the posts with the original source content, said Konieczny is exaggerating the proportion of the blog’s content that is pulled from press releases. The ratio breaks down closer to 50:50, she says: half regurgitated press releases, half original reporting from other sites, from which Konieczny allegedly removes the names of the author and original publisher. As an example, Worley points to a profile of a medieval historian published in Stanford University’s magazine last November that appeared the next day, without attribution, on Medieval News. (Update, 10:50 a.m.: Konieczny notes that the profile was also put out as a press release by the Stanford News Service.)
Lisa Spangenberg, a recent Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles, where she served as a Digital Millenium Copyright Act agent, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed accused Konieczny of going so far as to doctor source code when he copies content to eliminate all traces of prior publication. Konieczny says he would not even know how to go about doing that.
Worley said she has no problem with Medieval News republishing press releases -- but republishing other publications’ content without attribution constitutes plagiarism, she said. Other critics have suggested it could also amount to copyright infringement.
There are crucial differences between the two, said the copyright expert Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy at Cornell University: Plagiarism, she said, is an ethical issue. “If this is posing as an authoritative site, and is taking material from other people -- that raises a serious question about the value of the work according to the standards of the historical profession,” said Mitrano.
The difference between journalistic and academic standards was a topic of discussion among commenters. “While you may be following a standard journalistic shortcut -- one which is common, but by no means highly thought of in journalistic circles,” wrote Dresner, referring to the republishing of press releases, “you are unquestionably violating academic standards with regard to the proper use of sources.”
Konieczny, who earned a master’s in history at the University of Toronto before going into library science, said the blog was never meant to be an academic publication.
Copyright infringement, on the other hand, is a legal issue. It is usually determined by a series of factors, including whether or not the alleged offender is profiting off the copied work. Medieval News got 16,000 unique vistors in the the last 30 days, and makes about $50 in advertising revenue per month, Konieczny said. Combined with about $200 per month in combined revenue from the other sites in the Medievalist.net fiefdom, that’s just about enough to cover upkeep costs and airfare to medievalist conferences. “It’s very much pocket change,” he said.
But Sadowski, in a riposte to critics early Tuesday morning, suggested that the pair have ambitions to eventually live off profits from the advertising they sell on the sites. “Yes, we make money on the site, there is nothing to be ashamed of by admitting we are making money doing what we love,” Sadowski wrote. “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.”
Worley said that she thinks Medieval News is a fine resource, and that the field would stand to benefit if the blog continues growing. However, she said that to do that successfully, its founders would have to stop playing fast and loose with the laws of their publishing medium and the ethical expectations of their academic audience. “I don’t want to step on their dreams,” Worley said. “I just think that they need to go about it in a different way than making people think that they’re scammers.”