Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Internet | Media

August 1, 2006

Cutting Corners

A Gelf investigation reveals widespread plagiarism in an internet newsletter.

David Goldenberg

Fishman's Corner is a generally folksy, slightly geeky column that David Fishman used to write for Digital Moses Confidential, a weekly newsletter for the online marketing industry. Throughout its run, the column took on a variety of topics ranging from how the internet has changed politics, to how to get the elderly online, to how to get spyware off your computer. Gelf has found evidence of at least partial plagiarism in almost half of his columns. Following Gelf's inquiries, all of Fishman's columns have been removed from the site.

"I feel terrible about it," Fishman told Gelf over the phone last week, explaining that he wrote the columns as an unpaid favor for the site's owner, Hagai Yardeny. (Yardeny didn't respond to numerous requests for comment from Gelf, by phone and email.) "It wasn't my plan" to plagiarize, Fishman adds. "I was rushed to try to get content."

Fishman, who works for WRP, an internet marketing company, sounds genuinely sorry for his actions, and his columns certainly aren't the first example of unauthorized online "borrowing." Several sites actively "scrape" and reprint posts from other bloggers without attribution in an attempt to increase their online presence. (As Techdirt explains, this generally has little consequence for the owners of the scraped sites.) There's also an entire website (Plagiarism Today) devoted to stopping blog plagiarism. And though Fishman's columns were taken from a wide variety of sources, not one of them noticed the plagiarism—or if they did, cared enough to do anything about it. "There are millions of blogs copying stuff from other people," Fishman says. "And they probably got paid for it."

A few weeks ago, Gelf thought it would be fun to collect published statements by Gawker head Nick Denton in which he disparages the blogging business. One that we found came from an interview he did with the Independent, a UK newspaper, back in November of 2004. When Gelf conducted a Google search for some of the words in the article, Digital Moses Confidential appeared in the results. A column in the newsletter, called Fishman's Corner, ran a properly-attributed Denton quote from the Independent, but then replicated, word-for-word, much of the rest of the article, with the only notable variations coming when Fishman paraphrased other Denton quotes.

The Independent:

Still, there is reason for optimism, and Denton likes to point out that even at 2.5 million unique visitors per month, his sites are only just starting to "get the numbers that actually register with media buyers".

Fishman's Corner:

Still, there is reason for optimism, and Denton likes to point out that even at 2.5 million unique visitors per month, his sites are only just starting to get to a place where media buyers will notice them.

Faced with what looked to be a clear case of plagiarism, Gelf decided to look into the rest of Fishman's columns on the site. Using a combination of Google and Nexis searches, we found that 28 of 57 Fishman columns contain at least one paragraph that was borrowed directly from another source without proper sourcing.

In some of those columns, such as a piece he wrote about the expansion of the meaning of the word "blog," Fishman provides a link at the end of the column to the piece he's borrowing from. (In this case, it's an essay by Rebecca Blood, the author of The Weblog Handbook.) While the vague sourcing doesn't necessarily forgive the transgression, it's better than many of the other cases of Fishman's borrowing found by Gelf, wherein Fishman doesn't provide any sourcing, thus implicitly claiming the work done by others for himself.

In some cases, Fishman changed the articles' wording to better fit his column. For example, in his piece entitled "How To Choose One Job Offer Over Another," Fishman uses an article originally written for MilitaryHire.com:

MilitaryHire:

Compared to private industry salaries, most service members have earned below the norm. Therefore, it's natural that salary issues are at the top of the list of factors by which veterans choose one job over the other.

Fishman's Corner:

Compared to an experienced veteran, most new job hunters have earned below the norm. Therefore, it's natural that salary issues are at the top of the list of factors by which new job hunters choose one job over the other.

And in a column on browser hijacking, Fishman changed the name and location of an information-technology director. In the original piece, the South African Press Association attributed a quote to Frank Felzmann from the German Federal Office for Security in Information Technology (BSI) in Bonn. In Fishman's piece, the same quote is attributed to Frank Feldman from the BSI in Tel Aviv.

In a piece on Adware, Fishman borrowed heavily from a Seattle Times article on the man behind Claria. But to keep the story applicable to all Adware sites, Fishman clumsily manipulated a quote from Adware critic Ben Edelman.

Seattle Times:

"Claria presents its notice and consent ... in such a manner that most users mindlessly press 'accept' without understanding that what they're accepting is extra pop-ups,"

Fishman's Corner:

Some of the larger adware companies "presents its notice and consent ... in such a manner that most users mindlessly press 'accept' without understanding that what they're accepting is extra pop-ups,"

Perhaps most indicative of the extent of Fishman's plagiarism is the wide variety of sources from which he copies. Fishman represented good-sized chunks from each of the following sources as his own:

Associated Press
Financial Times
Information Week
E-Commerce Times
Search Engine Journal
The Nation
P2PNet
NewsFactor Magazine
Internet Retailer
Web Marketing Today
Internet World Magazine
Information Week
The Hollywood Reporter
ClickZ.com
People's Daily Online
iMedia Connection
Always On

He also wrote up as his own parts of:

A SendTec press release
A USC press release
A research paper by a Maryland scientist
A newsletter highlighting accomplishments at the University of Chicago's business school

It is strange that an online columnist would risk plagiarizing so many articles, when such deception is so easily sussed out online. But as Fishman wrote in a column about the power of search engines, "This is the infancy, or even pre-infancy, of search engines becoming answer engines for certain types of factual questions." Google was able to answer the question of whether that line was an original thought by Fishman. The answer is no: It's a quote from an InformationWeek interview with SearchEngineWatch.com analyst Gary Price.

When Gelf spoke to Fishman over the phone, he apologized profusely and said that Digital Moses would immediately remove his columns.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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