Victorian England's Female Offenders

Bloggers, Beware!

When I started WaywardWomen in April 2012, I wanted to create a space where I could explore the themes and points of interest in my PhD project – but more than this, I wanted to create a place in which I could share and exchange my ideas with others – be that academic scholars, to those with a more general interest in the topics, and everyone in between. My hope, perhaps a naive one, was that WaywardWomen would allow me to become a better researcher, a better writer, and a more thorough thinker. The wonders of the internet and social networking sites like Twitter also allowed me to take the vital step it starting to associate my name and work with the subjects that I hope to build my academic reputation around. This is an experience that any anxious PhD student will tell you is invaluable at such an early point in their career. I am thrilled to say that the last year or so of running WaywardWomen has helped me to achieve all of these goals, and more, just as those who encouraged me to take up blogging said it would.

Yet, in all my haste to set up and begin publishing my thoughts and work on my blog, I wish I had taken a little more time to listened to the few people who cautioned me against it. Despite the fantastic attention and reputation that academic blogs are now enjoying, there can be some serious drawbacks – one of which I experienced last week.

On the 25th June, I was tweeted a link of a Daily Mail article that started ‘Edwardian Rogues Gallery’ by a friend and former lecturer. It was with surprise and a fair bit of horror that I opened the article to find my own work staring back at me, with somebody else’s name posted at the top.

Back in May this year, I published a post titled ‘Birmingham’s Brewery Blacklist’. This piece looked at a collection of habitual drunkards from turn of the century Birmingham which Ancestry.com had released back in 2010. The original records covered both male and female offenders, but given my research interests, and the interest of those that follow and read my blog, I wrote a piece profiling the commonalities the female drunkards shared. The post contained all original work – and several of my own statistics, which all took time and effort to compile. The Daily Mail had already covered the press release of the original records in 2010, and I could not account for them suddenly deciding to run an almost identical (down to the selection of the same six photographs) piece to mine – focussing on women and using many of the commonality profiles I had – out of the blue three years later.

I took my worries to Twitter and was soon informed that it was not only the DM, but also Telegraph, Express, Birmingham Daily Post, and others that had run a paraphrased version of my work, under the name of several authors. A fellow PhD student – and former journalist – later explained that it appeared that my work had been picked up by the South West News Agency, and circulated to a selection of national newspapers without my knowledge or consent. Most upsettingly, a collection of unscrupulous journalist were then able to present my work to thousands of readers under their own names without any acknowledgement to myself, or my blog.

 In the following days several other well renowned history bloggers consoled me, and warned me that this kind of behaviour was far from common.  On attempting to contact the individual journalists, or the papers that they work for, I was met, quite unsurprisingly, with a wall of silence. We quite rightly spend a good deal of time promoting, and discussing the many merits of running a blog – none of which I disagree with. But it is the above type of experiences that those who write blogs, and those that enjoy them are not talking about nearly enough. Blogging exposed my work to an amazing number and range of people who I could never have hoped to have reached before. It helped me to make new connections with other scholars, who helped me to refine my ideas. Numerous other people also offered input that will undoubtedly make me a better historian in the future. For these experiences I am exceedingly grateful. But blogging also exposed me to those who wanted to take my intellectual property – to sell it, and pass it off as their own.  A problem all of us need to be far more concerned with.

Since April 2012 I have thoroughly enjoyed blogging, and I would still recommend it to anyone. But, bloggers, beware . . . let’s start talking about the problems and perils of blogging (as there are clearly some pretty huge ones) as much as we talk about the benefits. That way, in the future, situations like mine might be avoided.

Let’s hope the press agencies pick this post up – acknowledge where it came from – and publish it. They have my full consent to do so . . .

But somehow, I rather doubt it.

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31 thoughts on “Bloggers, Beware!

  1. I think the key bit of advice is only blog about academic work you’ve already published. It’s also good practice to reference your academia.edu page or other link directing people to your own work. That’s what I do. Turns out you can’t just assume that everyone is honest. I will forward this blog though.

  2. Thanks for forwarding. What you say about only sharing what you have already published makes sense – but lots of PhD students want to start talking about their research with others before they get the opportunity to do that – so lots of them use blogging as a really fantastic opportunity to do so. My academia page can be found in the ‘about’ section – and is, as you say, also a very good tool for directing people towards your work.

  3. I’ll inform Private Eye today.

    I’ve found your blog very enjoyable and informative about the mass of forgotten figures of the past. Unfortunately plagiarism is rife and maybe this particular journalist has forgotten that what goes around comes around.

  4. You could try invoicing them: you’ll find various tales from photographers (amateur and pro) who have taken this approach after their work was lifted.

  5. I’ve tried to tread a fine line between sharing my progress on both my PhD and writing projects and not saying too much for fear of being taken for a ride. That’s why I only seem to write in general terms about my PhD work. Very sorry for what’s happened to your intellectual property and thanks for flagging up this warning.

  6. Sorry to hear this happened to you. But as far as I know, there are very good grounds for arguing that blogs such as Waywardwomen constitute a legal copyright ‘footprint’. I would strongly recommend contacting a lawyer and see if someone can take up your case for you. But you’re right, we should be talking about this more as academic bloggers. Legal rights should be made more explicit and also made more transparent and comprehensible to digital authors. Does anyone else know the legal situation with this kind of plagiarism?

  7. Wow. I am so sorry to hear this! I run a collaborative blog called Nursing Clio that’s about history, gender, medicine, and healthcare. Every week I do a link roundup and I am sorry to say that I included a Yahoo news story about Edwardian female drunks. I had no idea. Do you have a link to the original story and we will publish it on our Facebook page?

    As far as the dangers of academic blogging – I tell my bloggers to never, ever publish original material that they might be using for their diss or book. I know others may disagree with me, but yours is truly a cautionary tale. So sorry!

    • I think your advice is sound – I only wish I’d had a little more of it when setting up the blog. I would really appreciate it if you could share the original post:


      Thats very kind of you. Part of what is so upsetting is that like you, many people enjoyed the content of the rip off pieces – I just wish they’d all seen mine instead!

      • I will also publish this link in the comments section of the link round up.

      • Yoni on said:

        I certainly understand your anguish, Lucy, but without forgiving the objectionable behavior of the journalists, I’d actually encourage you to think of this as demonstrating the rewards of blogging, rather than its perils.

        The South West News Service is a content mill, churning out sensational stories at a rapid clip. The 2010 DM piece included a quote from Ancestry’s Dan Jones, and gave the image copyright to ancestry.co.uk, but included no statistical compilations or analyses. The 2013 piece also attributed its information to Ancestry, but included as a quote attributed to “a spokesman” an apparent excerpt from the site’s description of the content, in what may have been an attempt to convey the illusion of original reporting. And it’s difficult to explain either the timing or the content of the piece if the writers hadn’t seen your blog. What’s particularly galling, to me, is that attribution is so easy and cheap. All the reporter needed to do was correctly attribute the analysis, or better yet, attribute and also link back to the blog. But my favorite detail is that they’ve slapped their own copyright on the photos they’ve reproduced. That’s…remarkable.

        So yes, the conduct is outrageous. But at the same time, given that it’s happened, it’s difficult for me to see this as less than positive. You chose to highlight these sources because you felt that they were important, and deserved broader public attention. Thanks to your efforts, that’s precisely what they’ve received. You’ve now demonstrated public interest in your work, and your ability to spread your research to a large public audience. (Very few historians will ever have any of their research findings splashed across a half-dozen newspapers, correctly attributed or not.) And if you hadn’t been blogging, that would never have happened.

        In fact, instead of drawing back from public engagement, I’d encourage you to seize the moment. The SWNS piece stripped these images of most of their context, offering only cursory interpretations. Your blog post did much better. And now, editors can see that there’s a real interest in the material. There’s no point in shielding this research for a dissertation, book or an article; it’s already out there. So take your blogpost, and rewrite it for a more reputable outlet than the Daily Mail. Do the thing right. The images are extraordinary. The context you assign them is illuminating. And the pageviews and social shares they’ve already generated are too tempting for most editors to pass up.

        Ultimately, your career as a historian won’t suffer for this. The images weren’t original to you; as you point out, they’d been widely covered three years ago. What you’ve got to add is your interpretation, and that’s still yours. They lifted a few elements of it without attribution, and they shouldn’t have done that. But they’ve also, I suspect, opened the door for you to do the thing properly. So go publish a compelling little essay in an outlet that will redound to your credit, be sure to present the entire episode as a triumph for the importance and public appeal of your research, and you’ll end up far better off than if the SWNS had never stolen your work to begin with.

  8. Hi Thanks for putting your blog together and I’m truly sorry that you had your work appropriated by those who COULD afford to pay for it, yet left you no attribution. One trick that I like to use is making the post mine. Use references to your own work and “That’s what made me research this topic” type quotes. Make sure you submit to sites who regularly link to you first. This helps to establish your work as the original. If you link out to 3rd parties make sure they know, tell them and mention them in the body of the post. This is more stuff would be content thieves will actually have to sit down and remove. Make it hard for them.

  9. Plagiarism and improper use of texts isn’t restricted to blog posts. The journalists could as well have copy-pasted text from your published journal articles or books. In other words, this is not a blogging problem, but a unfortuate side-effect of going public with one’s research. And since research only makes sense when it is publicized, I am afraid plagiarism and intellectual theft s inevitable.

  10. Thought I was experiencing dejavu when I saw the pics re-appear. I remember sharing your post with my readers and was surprised when I saw this again. had the same problem many years ago with a little website called “wikipedia” which took – word for word (and mistake for mistake) – every article I wrote on my website and republished it on their fledgling site (though you would no longer recognise my original from what now appears – thanks to reader contributions over the years). So major sympathies.

  11. Oh, and PPS: One of the gals I work with bears a remarkable resemblance to the lovely lady to the far left above! Spooky!

  12. Hello,

    I’m sorry to hear this happened to you, nevertheless, it is not unknown. I have had similar experiences, but not as extreme. I recommend you consider the following things.

    Blogging is a way of sharing your research, but is it impact, is it production as the REF would recognise?

    Consider that more important arenas are arguably being published, in an academic journal or collection, giving conference papers, and, arguably most important, in my view, giving talks about your research to community groups. These things matter.These things count as outreach. These things give you as much, if not more authority, than blogging.

    In short, blogging isn’t everything. Be careful.

    Stephen Etheridge
    University of Huddersfield

  13. Not sure if this will help in the future. http://www.copyscape.com

  14. Optimum Trajectory Photography on said:

    As a photographer who has had work stolen and published in someone elses name I would say this.

    There are two sides to this coin.

    1. Once the truth is out there, you are getting a wee bit of free publicity.


    2. It is your work, your effort in the research that has been stolen ( yes stolen its IP theft ). You are entitled to recompense just as I am if someone uses an image of mine without asking.

    I am not in favour of ambulance chasing normally, but in cases such as this, it has to be done. Punitive action to put people off doing it again have to be taken, else you are almost condoning their actions and making it harder for those of us who use their skills to earn a living.

    I know from personal experience how infuriating it can be to see your work being praised with the wrong credit being given….

  15. Reblogged this on Victorian Detectives and commented:
    An important warning about the pitfalls of academic blogging from Lucy Williams

  16. Your experience sounds dreadful, Lucy. I’m sure that most of us who blog are quite happy for our work to be republished elsewhere; after all, it seems to me that the whole point of blogging is to share one’s thoughts with the world and, now and again, to receive some feedback. But for your work to be used without even any acknowledgement is, in my opinion, both rude and unscrupulous. Haven’t any of the editors involved heard of anti-plagiarism software?

  17. George on said:

    Yoni’s advice is very good – I’d follow it if I were you.

    Nevertheless, I would also document the plagiarism as extensively as possible and keep them in a file in (the *extremely* unlikely) case that this interferes with your academic career further down the line.

  18. I am sorry to hear of the experience you have had. There is no doubt though that your material is your copyright and you should pursue the media outlets involved for appropriate acknowledgement and/or recompense. I have been blogging for a little over three years and have had a similar experience. As with your site all my posts constitute original research and are fully referenced. As part of the site I maintain a bibliography of works pertaining to the subject, and regularly check for new titles. Imagine my surprise when I found a book being offered for sale on sites such as Amazon which had lifted huge tracts of my work verbatim from the blog. I must say such blatant theft shook my confidence in blogging in general, but I contacted all the major online booksellers with the evidence that my work had been plagarised and they all removed the offending book from their stores. In the end I decided that the effort to get information out for public consumption outweighed the risk of plagiarism.

    My experience did lead to two decisions- I ended up publishing a book on my work and have also decided to ‘formalise’ the work I have been doing through a PhD. However, I think there is a bigger elephant in the room for academic blogging than work being directly lifted by media outlets and unscrupulous book authors, and that is the risk of plagarism from with university settings itself. Whereas we can defend against incidents of clear published plagiarism, the use without acknowledgement by other researchers of our work is much harder to pin down. Part of the problem here is that many third-level institutions do not recognise or monitor the original work that is being produced on academic-type blogs, with the result that they may not be as alive as they might to their use as source material. I was recently informed that there was some potential that work from my book was being used by a student for plagiarism purposes at a university; what is worrying here is the vast amount of unpublished research I have produced that could be so easily pulled from my blog without risk of discovery as it is not in my book. Until third-level institutions adopt a more all-encompassing approach to informing themselves of the work of academic- bloggers this ‘invisible plagiarism’ remains a great risk. All these caveats aside though, I do feel that blogging is one of the most effective communication tools available to us today, and that in a few years it will be the norm. In the meantime we just have to remain vigilant, and keep blogging!

  19. And that’s not all. Academics sometimes use plagiarism detectors like Grammarly (see Grammarly issues | Notes from underground) and when you present your thesis might accuse you of having plagiarised the articles that have been plagiarised from you!

  20. Reblogged this on digitalintelligencer and commented:
    A salutary warning about the downside of blogging….or maybe human nature as manifest in, thankfully, a small minority.

  21. Thanks for sharing this! I just stumbled across your blog via the Academic Blogs Project, and my heart sank into my stomach when reading this post. I’m headed into my second year of the PhD, just started my own blog, and find myself torn between sharing my thoughts and keeping them locked away until publication. I understand that there are risks and benefits to both of these options, but I still find it a tough decision, nonetheless. Sorry to hear that this happened to you, and thanks for sharing!

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