Science, Blogging and Plagiarism

I was pleased to read the article “Science Blogs – definition, and a history” published July 10 in Scientific American by Bora Zikovic, @boraz. Why? Because it forced me to consider assumptions.

Background: I have been employed in numerous roles: university research technician, graduate student/post doc, academic researcher and professor, packaged food industry scientist, university department head, and ingredient manufacturer nutrition scientist and communicator. I have also held volunteer leadership roles in several professional organizations and trade associations. During these metamorphoses, I believe my contributions have largely been dependent upon an ability (need?) to sell what I know – my ideas and nutrition knowledge – and build relations with others.  So as I read scientific papers in my position at DSM Nutritional Products and blog via and this vehicle, I sometimes ask myself. What am I? Am I predominantly a scientist or a science communicator?


The words of Bora Zikovic were reassuring. Although the definition of a science blog may be changing, I am, without doubt, invested in scientific blogging. And I trained as a scientist. My blogging predominantly covers science topics. My employer, DSM Nutritional Products, supports to elevate conversations and provide perspective on the role of vitamins and other nutritional ingredients in human health and well-being. Clearly, I meet most of the conditions described by Bora Zikovic:

What is considered a science blog varies, and has changed over the years. Usually it is meant to be a blog that satisfies one or more of these criteria: blog written by a scientist, blog written by a professional science writer/journalist, blog that predominantly covers science topics, blog used in a science classroom as a teaching tool, blog used for more-or-less official news and press releases by scientific societies, institutes, centers, universities, publishers, companies and other organizations. But is a blog written by a scientist that never covers science really a science blog?

 First conclusion: I am a science blogger.


Stimulated by the discourse lead by Ivan Oransky, @ivanoransky, on Embargo Watch surrounding the “bacterium using arsenic instead of phosphorus” paper published in Science in November, 2010, I decided to share my thoughts on changing science communications. It was a frustrating experience. In the months it months to publish “Changing Dynamics in Science and Communications” in a traditional, hard copy journal, blogs and twitter debated the validity of Wolfe-Simon’s findings. The debate continued this week as Embargo Watch covered the publication of two Science papers refuting the heavily criticized Science paper.

The part that interests me isn’t the merits of the experimentation. I am intrigued by the fact that Rosie Redfield, the University of British Columbia scientist, prevailed against the Ingelfinger rule. As Ivan Oransky wrote in “Another chink in the Ingelfinger armor? Arsenic life talk forces Science to release  paper early, without embargo”:

Redfield’s talk tonight is in keeping with her open science approach. She has been refuting the original paper in as public a way as I’ve seen, as Zimmer and others have noted.

And Science caved. Science released the paper early.

But my rub is the way that Science, and other scientific journalists, favor mainstream journalism. As quoted in Embargo Watch, the Office of Public Programs director, Ginger Pinholster, told Ivan Oransky:

We had a list a (sic) reporters who had requested a heads up on any developments on this story. We did our best to reach as many of them as we could on Friday.

I totally agree with Ivan Oransky:

I’m all for scoops and enterprising reporting, but I’m not sure I like the precedent of “if you ask for a heads up on this story, we’ll send you an embargoed paper, but not everyone else.” Embargo agreements are between two parties, and what reporters are supposed to get in exchange for upholding an embargo — an embargo that benefits journals by concentrating attention on timed releases — is a level playing field, and access for everyone at the same time. This paper wasn’t really “for immediate release” — it was “for immediate release if you didn’t know to ask for it in advance.”

 So while I’m glad Science did the right thing by releasing the paper early, I’d suggest that next time, they send out an advance copy to everyone who had agreed to their embargo.

Which brings me back to the beginning. In a world consisting more frequently of free-lance writers than news employees, do embargoes still make sense? It seems to me that embargoes came into being in an era when science journals could fax, or deliver, a copy of an embargoed press release to an office, eg the New York Times. This hard copy could be circulated within this physical environment. This is no longer the case. More and more, writers are freelancing rather than working for a single employer. Should Science and other peer-reviewed journals still be trying to maintain lists of science bloggers with embargo privileges? If so, what are the criteria to create these lists?

Second conclusion: Embargoes may be an anachronism in 2012.


Seth Mnookin wrote a piece “SciWriteLabs 8.1: The Lehrer affair, consequence-free-plagiarism, and rules for blogging” for PLoSBlogs. Seth discussed the recent revelation that Jonah Lehrer recycled material from a 2011 Wall Street Journal column for a blogpost. Lehrer may also have plagiarized his colleagues.

Anyone following RetractionWatch by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus knows that plagiarism is a serious offense in peer-reviewed science. Indeed, many science journals are taking a stance on self-plagiarism (beyond that typically found in materials and methods). So, I was disturbed to read the parsing of degrees of transgression by the panel of bloggers in Seth Mnookin’s article on PLosBlogs. Statements such as:

I’m going to start by agreeing: with you, Seth, and with Ed Yong: that the main offense here is against the employer, the publishing entity, the editor, and not against readers.

 Agreed this is mostly an offense against the employer – who is paying for and publishing material being misrepresented as original and fresh. Secondarily, perhaps, an offense against readers who believe they are paying for a subscription to a publication such as, say, The New Yorker, because it offers them said first-reported insights.

That we shouldn’t be too hard on Lehrer because, as Carl puts it, “[t]here’s no point in my scolding Lehrer further than he has done so himself” or we “shouldn’t make quick judgments on the death of careers” as David writes?

When it comes to plagiarism, is self-flagellation enough? I don’t think so. Most academic institutions take more vigorous action when plagiarism is found in peer-reviewed journals. If science blogging is to become mainstream, expectations with respect to plagiarism, even self-plagiarism, are needed.

Third conclusion: Welcome to 2012 – the ‘wild west’ of science blogging.

About Michael McBurney

Personal Blog | Nutrition scientist with broad interests, including social media and the impact of open access journals on science publishing | Self-employed freelancer
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1 Response to Science, Blogging and Plagiarism

  1. Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (July 13th, 2012) | Social Media Blog Sites

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