This week, a syndicated article appeared across a number of online media platforms under various different headlines. It covers the doomsday insect apocalypse narrative and appears to cast doubt on the issue of insect decline, largely blaming media and ‘activists’ for promoting the hype. The author links to my blog posts on the insect apocalypse, my BioScience paper co-authored with Jasmine Janes & James O’Hanlon, and my American Scientist article as evidence against the hype, and some sections paraphrase or directly quote from my work. To the average reader, it could appear that I have talked to the author, and that I endorse the article. I did not, I do not, and I was not aware the article was being written.
I’m not going to link to it – I haven’t heard of most of the outlets it appears on, but one version appears on a conservative ‘science’ website that has dubious historical connections to agrochemical corporations. I’m not going to name it or get into the politics of the website – this blog is not about that.
My point is about knowing where your work ends up online. I personally don’t agree with most of what is published on that particular site; their articles tend to cherry pick science to suit conservative or corporate agendas and cast doubt on legitimate evidence that supports environmental progress and action. It also has a questionable history that I don’t think has been adequately addressed. All in all, this site (and all its apparent affiliate sites) is not an online community I would choose to be associated with.
But I also can’t stop them linking to my posts. The author has not broken any laws – they have attributed me (albeit with a misspelled name and incorrect title) and linked to my blogs, which is what I ask in my copyright statement on my website.
This isn’t the first time this has happened – I’ve been quoted as an expert in apparent support of various agendas on this and affiliated sites. The site even has me listed as an ‘author’, from back when they republished my 2014 Grist article on how industrial agriculture is affecting bees (again, without my knowledge).
This is something that we unwittingly sign up for when we choose to blog or publish online. You can’t stop people linking to your blog or quoting your work, just as you can’t stop people citing your papers. The only difference is that online content has much further reach.
I get a notification whenever someone links to my blog. In most cases, there’s no problem, even if I may not agree with the overall message of the other post – most authors link to another blog as a reference or recommendation within the context of their own thoughts.
The difference with this particular article, is that large portions are dedicated to my work and block quotes from my original text. It gives the appearance that I am somehow associated, or at least agreed to it being published.
At the end of the day, all I can do is to publicly state that I’m not affiliated with those sites and had no knowledge the articles were being written.
It also raises some interesting thoughts about the rise in online open ‘creative commons’ publishing approaches, which many blogs and online media fall under, either loosely or explicitly. The idea is well-meaning – open source, access to information etc. – but under what circumstances could it affect the author’s reputation? In the case of academics, for whom independence and lack of vested interests are paramount to their reputation, this could cause some awkward situations.
The Conversation is a great example. All articles are published under a creative commons license that allows anyone to republish the article on their own platform, as long as original authorship is identified. Mostly these platforms are other news sites, but sometimes not. I’ve seen my Conversation articles pop up on all sorts of random pseudoscience and dubious sites around the world, all with the appearance that they were written by me for that platform.
I think these are also things to consider when pushing for blanket open access creative commons style publication for peer-reviewed papers – maybe there is some protection in those journal copyright licenses that academics complain about!
So, are there any solutions?
As an author, I recommend setting up a google news alert, or other notification system, to pick up articles where your name or your blog name are mentioned. Most blogs will notify you of pingbacks from other blog platform sites, but not all online media do this. There are a few options if you find your work has been shared somewhere you don’t agree with:
- Ignore it, don’t share it, don’t give it airtime. In most cases, this is ideal, especially if it’s likely the article has a small audience that is largely unconnected to your own.
- Write a response on your own website or on social media, to clarify your position. This may help if you think there may be legal repercussions in the future, or just if you are worried about the effect on your reputation.
- Contact the author and ask them to remove it. This would be a last resort, only if it is defamatory or has other legal ramifications. And if you do this, I suggest seeking legal advice, or talking to your institution, first.
And as readers, we must be conscious consumers online. Know the affiliations and history of the news sites you are reading. As more people are consuming news via social media links or aggregate topic feeders, we are more likely to encounter new media platforms and websites we aren’t familiar with. If you’re unsure of its legitimacy, do some research on the site – who is the author? Who funds the site? Who are they associated with? Wikipedia is a good start for basic info on media owners/authors, and there are tools online where you can check political bias or fake news bias for many popular or mainstream media sites.
© Manu Saunders 2021