Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Plagiarism at the BBC

As if the science blogging world wasn't in enough turmoil this week, we have our own little plagiarism scandal to deal with. People who know me, know I have strong feelings about plagiarism. I hate plagiarists. Today we have a successful and established media figure apparently stealing from a fledgling writer and acquaintance of mine.

Last week, Brian Switek published a short piece on his Smithsonian Magazine blog about the discovery of fossil marks left by a dinosaur attempting to dig into a mammal's burrow. Yesterday, Tom Feilden, a science correspondent for BBC Radio 4, published a short piece on his blog that repeats verbatim sentences from Switek's post including an entire paragraph, which Fielden attributes to the discoverer of the fossils. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate the apparent copying.

On the mammalian score, a specimen of the relatively large Cretaceous mammal Repenomamus robustus described in 2005 was found with the bones of baby dinosaurs in its stomach—-it had apparently fed on young Psittacosaurus shortly before it died.

One clue, which appears to give mammals the upper hand, comes from the fossilised remains of a relatively large mammal, repenomamus robustus, discovered in 2005. It was found with the bones of a baby dinosaur in its stomach--apparently it had snacked on a young psittacosaurus shortly before it died. Score it one-nil to the mammals.

Not only is the wording similar, but notice the placement of the dash and the use of the sports scoring metaphor.

The first trace fossil type was made by a digging dinosaur, probably a maniraptoran similar in form to Deinonychus and Troodon. At first glance it doesn’t look like much-—just a lumpy bit of sandstone-—but if you look carefully, a claw impression and numerous downward-arcing grooves can be seen. It appears that the dinosaur was repeatedly sticking its foot into the hole and raking out sediment, a behavior consistent with the idea that these dinosaurs probably did not use their arms to dig because their feathers would have gotten in the way or been damaged.

The first trace evidence shows scraping marks in the sandstone rocks made by a digging dinosaur, probably a deinonychus or Troodon.

Below the claw marks numerous downward arching curves...


"If you look carefully," professor Simpson says, "it appears that the dinosaur was repeatedly sticking its foot into the hole and raking out sediment. Behaviour consistent with a carnivore digging out its next meal".

Both are short articles; these two examples make up almost half of their lengths. There are similarities and exact borrowings in the rest of the two pieces.

Professor Simpson is Edward L. Simpson, the first author listed on the scientific article that both Switek and Feilden are reporting. It is possible that both writers are borrowing from Simpson. Unfortunately, the article is hidden behind the pay-per-view firewall of the journal Geology, so I cannot check that. I know Switek, so I do not think he is also a plagiarist. However, even if both Switek and Feilden were both plagiarizing the same source in the same way, this would not excuse Feilden or diminish his crime. Plagiarism is almost never a one time thing. Plagiarists usually steal not because they are unimaginative but, rather, because they are lazy and feel pressure to keep producing. If they get away with plagiarism once, they will almost always try it again until it becomes a habit. If someone has the time or the energy, they should look over Feilden's earlier work. If he is a serial plagiarist, he needs to be exposed. If this is his first offense--however unlikely that is--he needs to be smacked hard so he will not try it again.

The BBC needs to investigate this and make a quick and public response.

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