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Monday, December 25, 2006

"It's a Good Thing" *

I'm posting a rare second post today because the recent scandal involving Dov Bear has been weighing heavily on my mind.  It's not that I'm such a great friend of Dov bear.  I mean, I think he's very bright, and I admire his ability to coax an argument out of even the most docile reader.  But at the same time I've made no secret of my distaste for bloggers who stir up controversy for controversy's sake.

Well, it now seems that the gods of irony have turned the tables on DB as he now finds himself the focus of a very serious controversy.  He has been accused of lifting entire blocks of text from multiple sources on an ongoing basis without providing proper attribution.  In short, he stands accused of being a plagiarist.

To his credit Dov Bear has publicly (and privately) admitted to the accusations, but IMHO his mea culpa fell a few articles of clothing short of 'the full monty'.  For example, he opened his apology with "I am writing to update you on my efforts to address the allegations made against me...", and then goes on to say that his lapses were borne of laziness rather than dishonesty.  I am certainly not in a position to judge the correctness of that sentiment, but I felt compelled to leave a response on his blog none-the-less:

Full disclosure:  I have fixed a couple of bone-headed spelling errors before republishing my comment here.

[Dear Dov Bear]

I'm certainly in no position to 'cast the first stone' since, although I try to attribute anything I present on my blog which isn't my own... I do sometimes get lazy after a quick search fails to turn up an authoritative source.

But that isn't really what we're talking about here, is it?

Two suggestions DB:

1. Your use of the word "allegations" in your mea culpa is ill advised. It suggests that the accusations are unfounded (i.e. that you allegedly copied material without providing attribution). Allegations are accusations that have been made but not proved. Is that really what you still maintain?

2. While I agree with an earlier commenter that Dov Weasel [the anonymous blogger who leveled the accusations] clearly has too much time on his/her hands... the issues raised are serious. It isn't that you used a picture that appeared on several sites without trying to find out who actually took/owned it (something I have done too frequently). It isn't that you used/paraphrased a witty expression you heard or read without giving credit because it would have taken too long to track down the original source (again, something I admit freely to having done). What you are accused of is copying large blocks of text from their source (indicating you knew where they came from) and pasting them into your blog. Further, in most cases you made small cosmetic changes to the phrasing. A cynical person would say that you made these small changes to throw off anti-plagiarism software that searches for verbatim text lifts... but I think you were probably just unhappy with the way the original text fit into your flow of thought and simply wanted to tweak it. However this doesn't minimize the fact that attributing the source would have taken far less time than the additional tweaking you did afterward. It would have been as simple as the cut and past that brought the ill-gotten prose into your domain in the first place.

You are a bright guy... nobody can reasonably say otherwise after having read you for even a short time. So I can't help but wonder why you cared more for other people's ideas than your own... so much so that you appropriated them. But that seems to be what you did. It wasn't laziness and it wasn't an oversight. It was plagiarism.

You haven't lost most of your reader's trust, and you certainly haven't lost mine... yet. But unless you make a clean breast of what happened here I think you will find it hard to shake this scandal off.

Do you really want to end up the Joseph Biden of the Jblogosphere? I mention Biden because in the end it turned out he was guilty of far less than he was accused of... but because he obfuscated and dodged rather than admitting that yes, on one single occasion he had acted unethically... he is now remembered incorrectly by many as a serial plagiarist.

I honestly don't wish that on you.

Although I don't envy Dov Bear his moment of notoriety, I do think it is a healthy development for the blogosphere that a form of peer censure has occurred.  Years ago the blogosphere prided itself on its free-wheeling, 'wild west', anything goes way of conducting business.  We were like a bunch of kids on a playground with no grown-ups around to impose the stuffy rules of organized society on us. 

Pictures, stories, jokes, memes and just about anything else on which we could lay/click our grubby little mice were passed around without attribution.  Anyone who complained about purloined intellectual property... pilfered prose... ill-gotten images... was called an old hen or a prude.  The very idea of private ownership seemed antithetical to the way the web had organized itself.  Bandwidth was something other people shell out for and hot content was only occasionally 'paid for' with a 'hat tip' to the last person who had 'borrowed' it.

What we failed to realize back then was that we weren't playing in a schoolyard devoid of teachers.  We were more like the castaway children in William Golding's 'Lord of the flies' who, in the absence of the conventions of organized society, had become savages.

The fact that we now have a situation where a blogger has leveled charges of plagiarism... and that those charges aren't being 'poo-poohed' is, quite frankly, incredible!  This is a promising indication of the blogosphere's slow transition into a serious, mature medium.  That plagiarism is being debated in many corners of the Jblogosphere is extremely healthy... and that the accused himself seems to be [mostly] taking the charge quite seriously is perhaps the most positive sign of all.

The MSM has historically looked down its nose at the blogosphere, calling us a bunch of unruly children lacking in journalistic and ethical standards.  A few years ago that might have been mostly true, but the way the Dov Bear scandal is being picked over and debated among bloggers provides hope that the blogosphere has indeed passed from its unruly childhood into the realm of adult rules and standards.

As Martha Stewart would say (* note the internal attribution there, DB), "It's a good thing."

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Posted by David Bogner on December 25, 2006 | Permalink

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DovBear, a popular Orthodox Jewish blogger, is nailed, pleads guilty and apologizes. (Treppenwitz)... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 25, 2006 8:05:04 PM

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A couple of weeks of heavy gigging, and look what I miss. Liked the Lord of the Flies analogy.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Dec 25, 2006 3:36:14 PM

It doesn't really matter whether or not DB negligently or intentionally published someone elses ideas as his own, it's still plagarism. Whether he couldn't be bothered to take the time to give credit where credit is due, or he puposely stole someone else's ideas is a meaningless distintion in my mind. And in my opinion, once a person has stolen someone else's work, anything published by the plagarizer is suspect if not forever, for a very, very long time. There are too many smart writers out there for it to be worth it to read a blog where the reader has to fact check everything the author publishes.

Posted by: Fern | Dec 25, 2006 10:40:31 PM

Let's be honest here. There is no way this plagiarism could have been accidental. No matter how busy a blogger dovbear is. I guess time will tell whether people wil continue to go to his blog for their daily dose of controversy. Though I can't see why some unethical or immoral behavior would jeapordize his place as the blogospheres irresponsible controversy-mongerer. So he will probably do just fine.

Great comment Trep. You really got your finger on the pulse here.

Posted by: guy | Dec 26, 2006 12:51:52 AM

right on!

Posted by: mike | Dec 26, 2006 2:09:14 AM

As always a very clear and concise post hitting the nail on the head! I have to admit when I started to see those emails in my inbox I'm wondering "what on earth is going on"? I'm not his biggest reader but when I figured it out I really had to laugh at how absurd it all was but the bottom line is not funny as you point out.

Posted by: Jewish Blogmeister | Dec 26, 2006 6:42:19 AM

Well, you may call me cynical, but negative publicity is still publicity...

As for ethical standards in blogosphere, I think that they are especially important for informational blogs, which purport to provide an alternative, or at least a complement, to MSM. Many bloggers are especially proud of catching the mistakes and ethical violations in MSM, so any such violations in the blogosphere would certainly make us look like hypocrites, whether all of us have the same goals and style or not.

I must admit, however, that I never even thought about the possibility of plagiarism in the blogosphere until now. Maybe I'm a little naive, and maybe there's a tendency. Who knows how many well-known bloggers may be doing the same thing. Who's going to check on them?

Posted by: Irina | Dec 26, 2006 7:11:29 AM

Jordan... I'm surprised you didn't smell the blood in the water. :-)

Fern... What you say makes sense. Someone who will steal an egg will steal a chicken. Of course we adhere to the concept of tshuvah (repentance)... but it remains to be seen if that will actually take place.

Guy... As I said, I'm careful not to come down too hard on anyone else as my closet is chock full of skeletons. :-)

mike... thanks.

Jewish Blogmeister... Laughing was the one reaction I didn't have. This was like watching a car accident in progress.

Irina... I suspect DB would do just about anything for publicity, but this is way beyond the kind of heat anyone would willingly invite.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 26, 2006 10:02:34 AM

Someone who will steal an egg will steal a chicken.

What if it is an ostrich egg?

Would that same person still steal the ostrich?

And more importantly, how does one steal an ostrich. They are quite large.

There you have the comment that got me thrown out of class way back in the eleventh grade.

The teacher had made the same remark you made. Thanks for helping me to relive that highlight in my life. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Dec 26, 2006 10:05:24 AM

Jack... Why am I not the least bit surprised? :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 26, 2006 10:15:44 AM

I do my best to please. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Dec 26, 2006 10:24:17 AM

Jack... I'm sure your [long-ago] teacher would beg to differ. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 26, 2006 10:32:27 AM

This is so far the best post I've seen on the issue, though I could probably add quite a bit to it.

One note, since I agree with most of the rest: The fact that we now have a situation where a blogger has leveled charges of plagiarism... and that those charges aren't being 'poo-poohed' is, quite frankly, incredible! This is a promising indication of the blogosphere's slow transition into a serious, mature medium. That plagiarism is being debated in many corners of the Jblogosphere is extremely healthy... and that the accused himself seems to be [mostly] taking the charge quite seriously is perhaps the most positive sign of all.

Unfortunately, there's quite a bit of "poo-poohing" going on. People can have different opinions on the seriousness of the apology, whether it's enough, etc. - but it is quite dismaying that you, HowLong, Jift, and Chana were the only ones to give any serious criticism on the thread on his post. Granted, many are remaining basically quiet or keeping their thoughts to private emails/chats - but i'm quite disappointed overall, personally.

Posted by: Ezzie | Dec 26, 2006 7:01:10 PM

Jack... I'm sure your [long-ago] teacher would beg to differ. :-)

Perhaps. I like to think that he would thank me for keeping him and the rest of the class awake.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 26, 2006 7:36:19 PM

Great post, Trep.

(Ezzie- I think people are actually scared of DB. Which is eyebrow-raising in itself.)

I shouldn't really weigh in on this issue, although I've been following it vaguely. I hardly read him (or any other bloggers who don't seem to visit their commenters much/at all. That to my mind isn't being part of a blogging community, that's something else altogether.)

Posted by: PP | Dec 27, 2006 12:16:42 AM

Ezzie- I think people are actually scared of DB. Which is eyebrow-raising in itself.

TafkaPP - I agree with you on that...

Posted by: Ezzie | Dec 27, 2006 12:24:43 AM

Whenever I plagiarize..., errrmmm, I mean, take data from someone, I always make sure to confirm it from a few other sources, and then rewrite it thoroughly anyway.

We are pleased to call it 'research'.

With thanks to my otherwise wasted years in academe.


[I did that with the Torah many years ago. After several rewrites I ended up with the Quran. How odd.]

Posted by: The Back of the Hill | Dec 27, 2006 1:14:32 AM

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